HP, Microsoft form $250m IT tag team
Frontline battle with Sunacle, CiscoEMCVMware
With Cisco Systems, EMC, and VMware teaming up to sell integrated IT stacks, Oracle buying Sun Microsystems to create its own integrated stacks, and IBM having sold integrated legacy system stacks and rolling in profits from them for decades, it was only a matter of time before other big IT players paired off
Today, through a three-year, $250m partnership named Frontline, the number one server maker, Hewlett-Packard, and the number one operating system player, Microsoft, paired off to jointly create, sell, and support Windows-based stacks.
Microsoft and HP did not think it wise to divulge whatever configurations it had in mine for Frontline systems -unlike the Acadia partnership between Cisco, EMC, and VMware, which was announced  last November and which includes very precise preconfigured systems  called Vblocks that the three are peddling.
We can infer from the Frontline alliance page  hosted at the Microsoft site that it will include stacks based on HP's ProLiant and Integrity servers, StorageWorks storage, ProCurve switches, and myriad system management tools and services; on the Microsoft side, it includes Windows, Systems Center management tools, Hyper-V virtualization, Exchange mail server and SQL Server database programs, and ERP and BI application software. It looks like an integrated stack running SQL Server is going to be the first Frontline offering.
More than anything else, the Frontline partnership seems geared towards keeping Cisco's "California" Unified Computing System and their integrated VMware vSphere virtualization from gaining traction among HP's server and storage channel partners and Microsoft's Windows channel partners. It's also a way to keep the Oracle-Sun combo from creating and pitching its own integrated stacks to channel partners (who reach most of the SMBs in the world) and directly to enterprise customers (who thus far have seemed to like picking and choosing their own components and integrating their own systems, much to IBM Global Services' great joy).
Avnet, one of the two big master server resellers in the world, has already partnered  with Cisco so its downstream channel partners can push Cisco's blade and rack servers as well as various networking and storage products, and it probably won't be long before Arrow Electronics does too. Avnet and Arrow account for a lot of server and storage sales globally.
But this is no reactionary move, according to Mark Hurd, HP's president, chief executive officer, and chairman, who was joined on a conference call with Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, to explain the Frontline partnership. (Or rather, not explain it too much lest we actually understand what it is and what it is not).
"This is the deepest level of integration and collaboration we have ever done - we're talking about optimizing machine capability around SQL Server," explained Hurd. He added a few more buzzwords with the word "capability" used like a comma and then added that Microsoft and HP were dedicating 11,000 people to the Frontline integrated product stacks.
"This is breakthrough stuff from us, and this is different from what we have done before." Hurd said that HP and Microsoft have been talking about doing something like this "for years" and that Ballmer sat down with him in earnest in April 2009 to hammer out some kind of collaborative deal that resulted in the Frontline stacks.
VBlock and tackle (tackle not included)
Dave Donatelli, who left EMC to take over what is now HP's Enterprise Storage, Servers, and Networking group (ProCurve networking was bolted on late last year, and 3Com will end up here, too, once that acquisition closes), piped up and said that HP and Microsoft would be increasing their go-to-market investments by a factor of ten, and both companies would be adding dedicated sales people whose sole livelihood depends on selling Frontline integrated stacks.
About 32,000 of the combined HP-Microsoft channel partners will be able to sell Frontline products when they become available, according to Donatelli. And they will have access to collateral marketing materials, promotion money, and pretested and prepackaged Windows stacks that Hurd said "would simplify life enormously" for channel partners.
While this is all great, what channel partners probably need more is a few more points of margin so they can stay in business. If the Cisco-EMC-VMware triumvirate and the Oracle-Sun duopoly offer better margins to channel partners, which one do you think partners will push?
So what does the Frontline partnership mean to the long-standing partnership between HP and Oracle? Both HP and EMC were snuggling up to Oracle at OpenWorld last October , but HP was dissed when Oracle moved its Exadata data warehousing (and now online transaction processing) cluster from HP ProLiant iron to Sun blades. "I think Oracle will continue to be a very important partner of ours," said Hurd," but that's not what I am here today to talk about."
And what about Microsoft, which has partnerships with other server makers, like Dell and IBM?
"We don't have a lot going on with IBM, so let me set the record straight on that," Ballmer said while laughing. And Ballmer continued to chuckle as he said: "We're going to work with guys that HP competes with, and HP is going to work with guys that we compete with."
So Microsoft and HP are having an open marriage, it would seem. But Big Blue is sleeping out on the enterprise couch, and if Microsoft ever stops using Power chips in its Xbox game consoles, IBM might find its bags on the street.
While the Frontline announcement was way short on details - and sorry, Mark, but it was really just a press release contrary to what you say until we see what the products are and what they cost and they are available to buy - it looks like HP and Microsoft are going to work on building cloud-style infrastructure that can deploy Windows applications and be consumed either as a service through Microsoft Azure (which Ballmer said is hosted on "a lot of HP hardware") or through corporate data centers through private clouds.
Donatelli said that in the near future "servers will not look like they do today" and that HP and Microsoft were designing what he called a "next generation mainframe" that was optimized for cloud computing and that cost a lot less to buy and operate than current infrastructure.
That's a great vision. In fact, it is the same one Oracle and VMware have. The thing is, VMware and its Vblock partners are already pushing product, and Oracle will move fast once it has its hands firmly wrapped around Sun to get integrated stacks out the door.
Dell and IBM: Your moves. Be clever. ®