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HP to forge x86 Integrity and Superdome servers

HP-UX Unix not making the x86 Odyssey

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HP will forge Integrity and Superdome machines based on Intel's Xeon processors in addition to the Itanium machines it currently is selling, and plans to upgrade through at least two more processor generations.

Not that we didn't warn you. El Reg anticipated this when the "Tukwila" Itanium 9300-based Integrity and Superdome 2 machines were announced almost two years ago.

The news will breathe life into HP's faltering Business Critical Systems division, which has been hurt by Oracle's decision in March to not support its future database, middleware, and application software on future Itanium chips.

Customers may mistake the move as HP putting x86 iron ahead of Itanium iron or Linux, and Windows operating systems ahead of HP-UX, OpenVMS, and NonStop, the three homegrown HP operating systems that run on Itanium processors – and the latter no longer, for all intents and purposes, being supported on Itanium chips.

HP's top brass in the BCS division were at pains to point out that the company's plans, which were developed under the codename "Project Odyssey", seek to create Xeon-based Integrity and Superdome blade servers suitable for mission-critical workloads, because this is what customers are asking HP to do. Moreover, HP has plans to help make Windows and Linux more robust so they can be used either alongside of or instead of HP-UX.

It's not that HP is abandoning HP-UX so much as it's conceding that the kind of jump that it forced software vendors and PA-RISC customers to make a decade ago when it shifted to Itanium processors is not something many ISVs or customers will do at this state of the HP-UX market.

"It is not a technical feasibility issue," Kirk Bresniker, vice president and chief technologist for the BCS division, tells El Reg, adding that it certainly had the skills to port HP-UX to x86 server chips had it desired to do so. "For us, it is really about ISV and customer participation."

So if you were hoping, like I was, that HP was going to make Opteron-based Superdome servers and port HP-UX to these machines and maybe buy EnterpriseDB for a PostgreSQL database that can skin Oracle and DB2 databases, well, you can forget it. HP-UX 11i v3 will continue to be enhanced for many years to come, but it is only going to run on current and future Itanium processors from Intel. Meg Has Decided.

And in fact, Whitman hinted about it yesterday when participating in her first conference call with Wall Street analysts to go over HP's Q4 financial results – which, by the way, were not good for BCS, which had a 23 per cent revenue drop to $535m.

"The BCS business is a declining business. It is a slow decline, but I don't think you're going to see an accelerating growth rate in that business," she said. "And so we just have to manage that as best we can and invest in R&D so we get to a new platform as fast as we possibly can that allows us to service the clients that need this kind of power."

So El Reg was poised to root out a server roadmap change right then and there.

What Has Meg Decided?

This would all be a lot easier if the Xeon and Itanium processors from Intel shared a common socket, but they don't. Still, the "Boxboro" 7500 chipset spans modern Itanium 9300, Xeon 7500, and Xeon E7 processors from Intel, and they all support the QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) point-to-point network to lash CPUs, memory, and I/O peripherals together. The modern Itanium and Xeon E7 processors also use the same memory controllers and memory-buffering daughter boards and memory controllers.

What that means is that HP can take its sx3000 chipset, used in the Superdome 2 big bad blade servers announced in April 2010, and provide a single, coherent memory space for Xeon processors to hook into, just as the Itanium 9300 processors do today and the future "Poulson" and "Kittson" kickers, due in 2012 and 2014, will as well.

The Poulson and Kittson Itaniums will be socket-compatible with the current Tukwilas, something that HP insisted on to make its life easier.

HP has Superdome 2 machines with 8, 16, and 32 sockets that are based on two-socket blades that fit into a modified and taller (10U) BladeSystem c7000 chassis. The chassis holds up to eight Superdome 2 blades, and these are linked by their QPI ports to the sx3000 chipset, which implements a crossbar based on HP's own electrical design and uses its own communication protocols.

This crossbar has its heritage in Convex supercomputers and prior PA-RISC and Itanium Superdome machines, and it can scale up to four chassis and a total of 64 sockets – but thus far HP has only delivered the SD2-32s, and the SD2-64s has been sighted in presentations but not in the wild.

According to Lorraine Bartlett, vice president of worldwide marketing, strategy, and operations for the BCS division, HP plans to take a future Xeon EX family processor and plunk it into a Superdome-style blade server called "DragonHawk." HP is not saying much more about this machine, except that it will require some changes to the Xeon processors in terms of the mission-critical features – which HP is working with Intel to add to the Xeon architecture – and that it will "scale to hundreds of cores." And that it will slide right into the current SD2 chassis and operating next to Itanium-based blades running in separate partitions on the same box, should customers want to do that.

The current SD2-32s scales to 128 cores using the quad-core Tukwilas, and the SD2-64s using next year's Poulson machines will be able to scale to 512 cores if HP decides to push it. Just putting the current ten-core Xeon E7 processor into the Superdome 2 chassis would give you 320 cores in a 64-socket box.

So saying it will scale to hundreds of cores is not saying HP needs to do a huge amount of engineering.

Given this, it is perhaps a bit perplexing why HP does not plan to ship the DragonHawk blades for another two years. HP did not explain why it would take so long to get these systems into the field, but it very likely has to do with whatever feature set is due with the future "Ivy Bridge" Xeons.

In addition to making Xeon-based Superdomes, HP will also create Xeon-based versions of the Integrity blade servers that were announced in April 2010, as well. These machines use the QPI links and the Boxboro chipset on a normal-sized, two-socket Itanium blade server to create a double-wide blade that has four-way symmetric multiprocessing and a four-blade setup that has eight-way SMP.

This Xeon blade is called "HydraLynx" and is also due in 2013 or so. This would seem to be a much easier system to bring to market, but it will take as long as DragonHawk, according to HP.

More than hardware

The Odyssey project is about more than replacing some Itanium sockets with some Xeon sockets, says Bresniker. It's about working with Intel to get features HP needs into the future Xeon processors and the firmware in the systems.

"We are systematically evaluating the arsenal of intellectual property for HP-UX and mapping that to x86 platforms," says Bresniker.

Some of the technologies that make HP-UX and its Integrity and Superdome platforms rock-solid will end up being donated to the Linux kernel, as will tweaks for core and thread scalability and large memory support. HP will work with Microsoft to get features it needs into Windows to make them scale well on these machines, and ditto for the key virtualization hypervisor vendors.

Some key technologies are going to make the jump to the x86 machines. The nPar hardware partitions used on Integrity and Superdome machines, which provide electrical isolation between partitions, will be enabled on the future DragonHawk and HydraLynx machines. This may be one of the technologies that HP needs some time to work on.

HP is also taking another run at porting its MC Serviceguard system clustering technology from HP-UX to Linux, something it did many years ago, but because of tepid demand, stopped selling two years ago. The new version of HP's clustering software for Linux will debut next year. Bartlett says that the company does not plan at this time to port MC Serviceguard to Windows at this time, and that the native clustering that Microsoft weaves into Windows is sufficient for customers. If this changes, HP could be talked into porting MC Serviceguard to Windows.

HP's competitors will no doubt say that HP is killing off HP-UX from neglect, and that the Itanium roadmap is too short to drive by. Bartlett says that HP-UX customers are looking for stability in HP-UX 11i v3 and they don't want to have to go through another transition like the jump from 11i v2 to 11i v3, which involved the change from PA-RISC to Itanium architectures.

What's more, the ISVs who sell and support their 5,000 applications on the Itanium version of HP-UX are not looking for HP to port HP-UX to x86 chips, either. They want HP to make and sell Itanium-based machines running HP-UX, and ditto for those who sell OpenVMS and NonStop apps.

"We are absolutely committed to invest in HP-UX, OpenVMS, and NonStop operating systems and Itanium platforms," says Bartlett. "This announcement is in no way a change in our plans. We want to retain the best – which is HP-UX and Integrity – and build up the rest. And that is Linux and Windows on Xeon." ®

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