HP takes on Sun and IBM 

DQW Bureau
15 Sep 2000
New Update

Prasanto K Roy

New York, Sep 12


In a packed media event in New York City today, HP launched the Superdome,

HP's fastest commercial computer so far. The company also says it's the world's

fastest and most powerful Unix server.

"This is a watershed day for us," said Carly Fiorina, CEO, HP.

"We're raising the bar on what it takes to be in this market."

Part of the HP 9000 family of Unix servers, the Superdome ships with up to 32

processors and 256 GB of memory. A 64 processor version planned for later this

year will be crucial for HP's positioning in the high end of Unix servers that

power dotcom and e-enabled businesses.


The launch venue was significant--a hotel on Wall Street. HP wants to make a

splash with big businesses going for the e, staving off stiff competition there,

as well as impress the stock market and its analysts into giving it better

valuations. Financial analysts have criticized its Unix server business, sending

shares down. Fiorina has taken the offensive here, saying "we have the best

servers in the market, bar none", reorganizing the sales force, and

countering analyst concerns and competitor jibes.

HP launched the Superdome in a crowded, but rapidly growing Unix server

market. The high-end Unix server market is building up the competition--Sun has

the ageing Starfire and the upcoming Ultrasparc III-based Serengeti, Compaq has

the 32 processor Wildfire, IBM a 24 processor S80, and SGI a 512 processor


HP rules the midrange of this market, but has been slow in the low end, where

Sun is strong, and in the high end, where so far it has not had the models to

compete with IBM's high end RS/6000 products. HP was once the UNIX systems

leader, but lost that leadership to Sun, which gained the most from the Internet

boom. According to IDC, Sun has the largest market share for Unix servers. (Sun

had about a third of the $ 26 billion Unix server market last year, HP had a

quarter, and IBM about 20 percent, according to IDC. More significantly, Sun

grew well last year, while HP and IBM slowed down).


"Over the years, HP has taken a rap for being too analytic,"

Fiorina said, "but this is a radically different go-to-market approach.

Fourteen months ago we were basically getting killed in the dotcom space...we

gave our competition a hole big enough to drive a truck through. But no


The high-end Unix server segment is important, because it's typically

surrounded by services and backed with lots of other equipment, adding up to

both revenues and margins. And unlike in the low-end server space where Intel

and Windows NT have made big inroads, there is very little at the high end to

challenge the RISC Unix servers. Users for such large Unix systems are big

enterprises with databases tracking thousands of customers online, or a very

complex supply chain., for instance, is a big user of HP 9000 V-class

servers, and has been using a Superdome.

HP says it already has 150 orders, including and 16 pre-shipment orders that

have been fulfilled, for the SuperDome. The machine, manufactured at its

Roseville plant near Sacramento, California, is now shipping in the 32-processor



Pay as you go

Even more significant than the technology and power is the focus HP is

putting on what it calls the utility model. As with a power utility, where you

pay for the electricity you actually use, HP will let customers opt for a number

of flexible packages, which cut down up-front investment.


"We have placed a bet on the future of computing," Fiorina said,

"and it's on utility computing. The option to pay by usage lengthens the

life of systems and equipment, and drops the entry barrier."

Customers can still buy the systems outright, but there are a number of

options. The first is HP's `ICOD’ or Instant Capacity on Demand model

introduced in June for its V-class servers. In this, a system may be shipped

with a larger number of CPUs and memory than a customer needs. For instance, a

customer who wants a four CPU system now but expects more capacity needs in the

near future pays for four CPUs, but gets a Superdome with eight or 12 CPUs--but

only four enabled. Later, when traffic increases, for instance, he can pay for

more capacity, as HP will unlock additional CPUs remotely without bringing down

the system. This is similar to software vendor practice--for instance, Adobe

sells CDs with hundreds of encrypted fonts, and as you pay, you get the unlock

codes for the fonts. There's even a seasonal variant being planned where this

can be done for a peak season like Christmas, and then reverted to a lower-cost

configuration for regular seasons.

The other option is the utility model. A customer installs the Superdome at

his premises but does not buy it--he pays HP for the power and capacity he

actual uses. Software in the server tracks this and sends HP an e-mail, and a

monthly bill is generated, similar to an electricity bill. This is probably

unique for hardware, though it is commonplace for systems, software or support.


PA RISC now, Intel Inside in 2002

The high-end server project at HP was originally code-named `Halfdome’,

after the famed granite peak in Yosemite National Park, USA. The name almost

carried on to the final product. Then HP Marketing realized that `Half’

doesn't make an inspiring name, and `Superdome sounds a lot sexier.’ Though it

joins the HP 9000 family of A, L, N and V-class servers, this won't be called

the Z-class or something else--the name Superdome sticks.

The computer will consist of four processor cells each with separate own

memory and I/O. Using a high-speed bus and switches, eight of these building

cells can be assembled into a 32 processor configuration, and two of these 32

processor blocks can be joined into the full-fledged 64 processor Superdome

scheduled to arrive later.

Like the entire HP9000 family, the Superdome runs on the HP PA RISC

processors. The Intel-HP IA64 `Itanium’ processor family will be supported in

late 2002, for which it will merely need a cell-board upgrade, Duane Zitzner,

President (Computing Group), HP, told Cyber News Service. So far, only SGI has

announced dual-processor future support. Further, like the V-class, the

Superdome can be clustered in groups of four for supercomputing-class power for

technical power users.