HP forges Netweaver XML appliance

Making SAP sit up and bark faster

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German software giant SAP is hosting its annual Sapphire user and partner conference this week in Orlando, Florida, and all the majors in the IT community (many of who use SAP to run their own businesses) want to get a little piece of the PR action. In the case of Hewlett-Packard, Sapphire is all about promoting its expertise in boosting the performance of SAP's ERP suites.

This morning at the show, HP is previewing a server appliance called the XML Accelerator that will make its debut underneath SAP's ERP suites. It will almost certainly eventually make its way into the guts of other ERP programs from Oracle, Microsoft, and others who use XML documents. They all have to convert data flying into and out of their ERP systems from one XML variant to another, as the systems accept data into their ERP databases and kick out Web pages, reports, and other documents.

This XML transformation process, as it turns out, eats up a lot of CPU capacity on central systems. HP is taking the prudent tactic (at least in the long run) of creating an appliance that will do the XML transformation behind SAP's Netweaver Process Integration (PI) and reduce latencies on these transformations.

According to Jeff Medaugh, worldwide marketing manager at HP's Business Critical Systems division, the first iteration of the XML Appliance is based on a ProLiant DL580, which is a quad-socket Xeon server, not an Itanium box. This machine is equipped with Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 operating system, with the Netweaver software loaded on top of it. The server also includes a Tarari content processor board from LSI, and is then networked to the SAP ERP system, which is told to point to the appliance for Netweaver calls.

The exact model of the Tarari board that HP is using, and the number of the boards in the machine, is not clear, but you can read more about the boards here. The co-processors can be used for a number of different jobs, including intrusion detection and prevention, virus and spam filtering, firewall and security gateways, and XML processing. Medaugh says that HP is using the PCI-Express version of the Tarari card in the appliance, which comes in an XML-only flavor known as the LCPX 85XX.

LSI shelled out $85m to buy Tarari in September 2007 in the hopes that these specialized Tarari boards would be used inside various kinds of servers and appliances. But LSI is still best known as a maker of chips used in disk controllers, as well as controllers and whitebox arrays, and is still investing in that business. On April 21, for instance, LSI acquired the 3ware RAID adapter business from Applied Micro Circuits Corporation. LSI's president and chief executive officer is none other than Abhi Talwalkar, who used to be co-manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group with Pat Gelsinger.

Medaugh estimates that about half of SAP's ERP shops use the company's Netweaver middleware, which bangs on the XML transformations pretty hard. At one big corporate account (which he could not name), the customer has 450 XML links between various parts of the SAP suite and they project that the links will grow to 750 by 2011.

This creates a huge bottleneck in overall application performance, particularly among companies with large and complex supply chains where XML is commonly used as a means for data interchange. The XML Appliance that HP has created and tested in SAP's laboratories in Walldorf, Germany has demonstrated that it can reduce latencies on the XML transformations inside of Netweaver by a factor of seven and can boost Netweaver throughput by a factor of four.

Which is why HP is hoping that customers will shell out a whopping $250,000 to get their hands on the XML Appliance when it starts shipping at the end of July. That said, it seems just as likely that some companies will buy a DL580 and a SUSE Linux license and try to get their hands on a Tarari board and see what they can do for a lot less money.

Medaugh says that HP expects for customers to buy at least two of these XML Appliance boxes and cluster them for high availability. He adds that if customers need to do more XML processing than this machine can handle, the appliances can also be clustered for throughput. HP expects to put out smaller variants of the appliance later, for customers who don't need as much XML transformation and who don't have the large budgets that HP is chasing with its initial version.

It is reasonable to expect that other tier one server vendors will try to make their own XML appliances if this idea takes off. IBM sold DataPower XML appliances even before it acquired the company in October 2005, and allows for XML acceleration on its specialized zIIP mainframe engines. But just because an XML appliance can accelerate XML processing, it does not mean it has been tuned to do the XML transformation associated with Netweaver or any other ERP suite and its related middleware.

HP has been working on these tunings for the past year and a half, and that gives it something of a head start in terms of the SAP suites. But there is no way - and particularly at the prices that HP thinks it can charge - that this is a sustainable advantage. ®

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