HP shifts to purpose-built systems

Bundling servers, storage, networking, software and services is increasingly important to HP -- and the IT industry

LAS VEGAS -- As it opens its big annual user conference Monday, Hewlett-Packard is changing the way it sells its products.

HP is betting that its business customers want to buy complete systems, preconfigured and ready to go. The packaged products include everything from Microsoft Exchange systems to a data center in a box.

HP at past conferences generally emphasized the performance capabilities of new servers. This year it's focusing on systems that meet a specific business need.

The bundled systems can be deployed quickly, with little or no integration needed. They are sized for the task at hand, whether it's running Microsoft Exchange, deploying virtual desktops or compiling business intelligence data.

The new offerings are also key parts of HP's cloud strategy.

For sure, HP will continue selling individual servers and storage systems. But since its $2.7 billion acquisition of 3Com just over year ago, the vendor appears to be speeding up delivery of purpose-built systems.

At its conference this week, HP is planning a series of announcements wrapped around its "converged infrastructure" architecture that stresses interoperability, virtualization and common management platforms.

"We are moving to systems that are appliances," said Bethany Mayer, vice president of marketing and alliances, "but we are also building common modular products that you can mix and match."

Among the new products is the VirtualSystem, which combines server blades, storage, networking and virtualization software from either VMware or Microsoft, to create a system likely to be used for desktop virtualization. Up to 6,000 VMs can be supported by a single system.

HP is also bringing out the new Vertica Analytics System, a business intelligence platform designed for predictive analysis and trending. The company also recently announced CloudSystem, an integrated hardware and software product designed to build private clouds.

HP's integrated path may also be taking its relationships with other vendors in new directions.

In March, HP and Microsoft announced the E5000 Messaging System for creating an Exchange environment. HP's collaboration with SAP is increasing, especially as HP's tensions with Oracle grow. The fact that HP CEO Leo Apotheker previously held that post at SAP adds to such expectations.

Integrated software and hardware platforms are becoming an industry trend. Analysts note that the trend is one reason why Oracle bought Sun Microsystems, citing its new hardware and software platform, the Exadata Storage Server.

IBM has a long history of integrating hardware and software, famously illustrated by its mainframe systems. But the company is also moving in the broader industry direction as well, with systems such as IBM's WebSphere CloudBurst Appliance that combines blades with storage and software.

The largest and likely most visible new HP product set for unveiling this week is the HP EcoPOD, a complete data center in a tractor-trailer-size box that can house up to 44 industry-standard racks.

HP will sell the EcoPOD as an alternative to building a data center from scratch.

Gartner said the industry push to provide complete systems is giving rise to "super vendors," but the peril for users is an old one. An integrated systems approach can be used to thwart rivals, but also create new risks of vendor lock-in.

"Anytime you go with an integrated vertical stack, it makes it tough to move away to another platform," said Charles King, of the analyst firm Pund-IT

But vendors believe that the cost advantages of preconfigured systems could trump user fears about getting too dependent on any one vendor.

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, believes the industry is moving generally in this direction, and notes that HP has gone further than most other vendors to date.

He believes that combined systems "lower the cost -- both initially and over time -- of the implementation, dramatically suggesting [that] the benefits of going this route exceed the risks."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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