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HP's blades go virtual - six months late

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Like Sylvester Stallone in Over the Top, HP has turned its cap backwards and pushed the relatively new c-Class blade products to the next level.

The Sly reference, while clunky, proves relevant to HP's release of two "Virtual Connect" modules that plug into the back of the c-Class chassis and virtualize the box's connections to storage systems.

Stallone, after all, had to lock hands with countless sweaty men on his grunting, tumultuous march to the Over the Top arm-wrestling championship. And HP too has spilled buckets of perspiration and marketing material during its trek to ship Virtual Connect.

Last June, HP bragged about the Virtual Connect technology when it started shipping the c-Class blades. At the time, the company made it sound like customers could buy and even use the technology to create a looser bond between individual servers and storage boxes.

In short, Virtual Connect maps all of your storage area network connections to the blade chassis rather than individual blades. So, you can pop blades in and out all day – or until someone notices – without having to reconfigure the servers' storage ties.

As it turns, HP only "laid the foundation" for Virtual Connect at the c-Class product launch. The Ethernet and Fibre Channel modules that really make the technology work only went on sale this month.

The new modules plug into the interconnect bays on the back of the c-Class chassis in the spots where pass-through modules or Ethernet and Fibre Channel switches sit today.

"This technology reduces the number of cables; it cleanly separates the management of servers from the LAN and SAN operations; and it lets customers move or replace servers without affecting the LAN or SAN at all," said Bill Dicke, HP's blade interconnect strategy manager.

At present, you can only virtualize the eight full-height or 16 half-height blades in a single c-Class enclosure. Last year, however, we learned of internal HP plans to link up to four c-Class chassis together. HP confirmed that it does hope to make the more sweeping virtualization play possible in the future.

"There will be a future release which will allow you to stack multiple enclosures," Dicke said. "Eventually, you will be able to go across many enclosures – up to 100."

To pull that off, HP will need more sophisticated software than the firmware it relies on for the single chassis Virtual Connect feat. And, in fact, it's already beavering away on an "upper level manager." HP is also "engaged in some strategic planning" about how it can push something similar to Virtual Connect to other parts of its server line.

HP claims that rivals such as IBM, Dell and Sun Microsystems will struggle to develop a Virtual Connect competitor. "We designed this right into the c-Class architecture and were able to make it nice and simple. The competitors have not done anything similar as far as we know."

If that's true, HP's competition could be in serious trouble. The c-Class line appears to have pumped new life into HP's blade effort. Last quarter, the company unseated IBM as the leader in blade server revenue and shipments. At the moment, HP seems to be doing the most for its customers in the blade game – a true provider just like Sly was for his son in Over the Top.

HP has a white paper (PDF) on Virtual Connect here where you'll notice the company promised its modules in the third quarter of 2006. Wonder what caused such a massive delay?

The Ethernet module starts at $5,699, while the Fibre Channel unit starts at $9,499. ®

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