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Hewlett-Packard will today unveil the replacement for its top-of-the-range V-class servers, Superdome, in a launch that company executives have been trailing as the company's biggest server roll-out in ten years.

Some mistake, surely? The boxes unveiled later today constitute major, seven-figure purchases and may well at best sell into the high hundreds or low thousands of units. They're really there as showcase pieces that enable HP to renew pissing competitions with Q's high-end Wildfire kit or Sun's E10000 range. Which as HP unfailingly points out, Sun didn't invent, and only dropped into Sun's lap when SGI was obliged to divest itself of what looked like a dangerous monopoly on high-end servers used by the US government.

But there's more than bragging rights at stake, however. We expect HP to use the occasion to showcase a new business model that it hopes will grab as much attention as its "mainframe for free" garage program a year ago. Under the HP garage scheme, start-ups were seeded with HP kit on preferential terms. HP has a finance division that can underwrite all this, and despite the downturn in dot.com mania this spring, the garage program appears to be a success both in terms of winning HP marketshare, and paying its own way.

However, we gather that Superdome is a really a market trial for HP bundling its services as a mandatory part of the box purchase. We gather this both from HP channel sources and company executives, who've layed the blame for the much-publicised e-Bay outages on its failure to wrap-up a comprehensive Sun-sourced service guarantee to go with its shiny new kit.

Well... we're not so sure if this is the case actually. We've heard a myriad of technical reasons for e-Bay's wibbly performance, ranging from a failure to partition the E10000s to ropey cache consistency.

But more to the point, how effective will this new tactic of ramming service guarantees down the throats of HP customers actually be? Do HP customers get to see a stick, or a carrot?

For HP's largest customers - the first round of Superdome purchasers - there's no doubt that service will be generously bundled with their V-class replacements, so there's bound to be a loyalty bonus. But lower down the food chain, the requirement that you get buy must buy your service from your box supplier could bring administrators out in hair balls.

What HP must have in mind is Microsoft's first and expensively catastophic crack at the enterprise business. When Microsoft first embarked on its NT adventure, it very publicly ceded the service business to third parties. The world applauded, and in jumped the big five consultancies. But it took several highly-publicised failures (in which Redmond staff had to produce hastily rewritten bespoke versions of its shrink-wrap showcase software) before Microsoft realised that it had to deal with top-tier enterprise customers directly. So much for good intentions.

But not everyone has the clout that these top-tier customers can wield. And no one likes to have their choice of service provider curtailed by the box shifter. It's a risky strategy, and if HP is to appeal to more than in-flight magazine executives, it'll have to convince the BOFHs who make these technical choices that they're gaining as much as they're losing. ®

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