HP Bows to Users, Opts to Offer Opteron

Embrace of chip it once dubbed 'unnecessary' surprises, pleases customers who asked for it

Bill Thompson, a senior Unix systems administrator at The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., was among the users who were as pleased as they were surprised by Hewlett-Packard Co.'s announcement last week that it will offer Opteron-based servers.

Thompson said he used to hound HP to offer systems with the Opteron, a processor from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. that runs both 32- and 64-bit applications and that competes with the 64-bit Itanium processor co-developed by HP and Intel Corp. But he said the response from HP was discouraging.

"Everybody I talked to inside of HP said they had absolutely no plans, since they did all that work on Itanium," Thompson said. "I was really surprised" by HP's decision to reverse its course, he said.

HP may not have had any choice. It was becoming increasingly difficult to say no to large users such as Seattle-based Amazon.com Inc., which plans to evaluate HP's Opteron ProLiant servers.

The online retailer "sees great value" in HP offering the Opteron-based systems, said Walt Nelson, Amazon's manager of hardware and operating systems engineering. "In addition to delivering a performance boost for memory-intensive 32-bit applications, it provides a platform for customers to gradually port 32-bit applications to 64-bit on the same hardware," he said.

HP had been encouraging users to move directly from 32-bit x86 systems to Itanium.

Last summer, Peter Blackmore, executive vice president of HP's enterprise systems group, said the company had no interest in offering the processor. "It would just add a complication that is completely unnecessary," he said .

HP officials worked hard to reconcile that position with last week's announcement.

Paul Miller, vice president of marketing in HP's industry standard server group, said the company's expressed lack of interest in Opteron was simply "a point-in-time statement." He stressed that "when we're not shipping product, we're not going to talk about things under development."

Miller said HP had been considering Opteron all along, but had no intention of revealing its direction until its server development was completed. The main driver of the move was customer demand, HP officials said.

IBM's Opteron-based eServer 325 became widely available in October, and Sun Microsystems Inc. unveiled its Opteron-based server line just last month .

Rich Partridge, an analyst at D.H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, N.Y., said HP's position became untenable because users wanted to improve the performance of x86 systems and extend their lives without adopting Itanium and moving to its EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing) architecture.

At Akron, Ohio-based Goodyear, Thompson said, cost is one reason why he's interested in Opteron. An Itanium-based system with enough memory is expensive, he said.

Whether Opteron is a better deal "remains to be seen," said Thompson. He noted that he's interested in running Linux and an SAP ERP system on an Opteron-based server to capitalize on the larger amounts of memory available in 64-bit computing.

Amazon's Nelson said he intends to evaluate HP's Opteron server in large storage configurations. "Initial benchmarks have shown that it performs very well in memory- and I/O-intensive workloads," Nelson said. He said the chip also allows him to "take advantage of a larger memory address space for 32-bit applications and then gradually port key applications to 64-bit as needed."

HP officials maintain that the adoption of Opteron will have no negative impact on its Itanium effort. And Intel spokesman Scott McLaughlin said HP's Opteron decision has no effect on Itanium, which is aimed at high-end RISC machines. McLaughlin also dismissed any suggestion that HP's decision was a blow to the partnership. "Our relationship with HP continues to be quite strong," he said.

Although Sun is offering Solaris on its Opteron-based servers, HP said it has no plans to port HP-UX to the Opteron. HP does plan to offer systems this summer based on the Nocona Xeon, a 64-bit version of Intel's Xeon processor .

Dell Inc., meanwhile, said it has no current plans to adopt the Opteron. But "we are always evaluating Opteron and keeping our fingers on the pulse of the market for demand," a Dell spokeswoman said. Dell does plan to offer Nocona-based systems.

Terry Shannon, a high-performance-computing analyst in Albuquerque, said Opteron and Nocona address different market segments. Future versions of the Itanium—Montecito and Tukwila—will be able to address 1TB and 2TB of memory, respectively. "The x86-on-steroid chips can't do that," he said, referring to Nocona.

Course Reversal

HP will offer two Opteron-based servers sometime during the second quarter. Pricing was unavailable.

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ProLiant DL145, a two-processor, 1U server for high-performance computing, Web serving, security and streaming media.
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ProLiant DL585, a four-processor, 4U server aimed at database and Microsoft Exchange environments.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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