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NEC tag teams with HP on high-end x86 servers

Taking an Odyssey to fill a Kraken

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Japanese IT supplier NEC has expanded its technology alliance with HP to cover its future Project Odyssey x86 systems, and also to kick in a little help with the development and testing efforts.

That's no surprise. Like HP, NEC still has a business peddling Itanium-based servers running the HP-UX variant of Unix, but it needs to expand beyond those offerings it wants to stay in line with HP, which is working on beefing up Linux and Windows and running them on Superdome-style Xeon E7 servers as an alternative.

All of the major Unix server businesses are seeing customers downshift on investments in the 25 to 35 per cent range most quarters for the past several years, and it is quite alarming. But HP is not going to pull the plug any time soon on HP-UX or its Integrity and Superdome 2 lines, and therefore NEC will be able to get rebadged boxes from Big Meg, and at the same time do localization for HP-UX for the Japanese market and have its own value adds. So HP-UX on Integrity and Superdome 2 machines from HP or NX7700i machine from NEC will be around for many years, easily into the next decade.

However, the machinery that will be available way out there at the end of this decade could be quite long in the tooth, indeed.

The "Kittson" Itanium processors, which everyone expected to come out in 2014 or so, are almost certainly the last of the Itanium chip line even though HP and Intel will not admit it. And if you want to be honest about it, the eight-core "Poulson" Itanium 9500 processors launched in November 2012 are looking a lot like the last of the Itanium line, more or less.

The plan late last year was to put the Kittson Itanium into a common socket with the Xeon E7 processor and implement Kittson in a 22-nanometer process like all other Atom and Xeon server chips will be etched in this year, and that would truly be a new processor. But in January this year, Intel backtracked on those plans, and is now saying that Kittson will be socket-compatible with the existing Itaniums and be made with the same 32nm processes used to make the Poulson Itaniums.

In other words, the Kittson chip is really a Poulson+ chip.

Given all this, NEC wants to have an upgrade path for its own Itanium server customers running HP-UX, and that means making nice with HP so it can still get parts on Itanium boxes and aligning itself with the Project Odyssey plan that HP hatched nearly two years ago.

Under that plan, HP is cooking up Xeon variants of its Integrity and Superdome 2 machinery. The Integrity machine code-named "HydraLynx" was originally due this year, but that is looking dubious because Intel is not expected to get "Ivy Bridge-EX" Xeon E7 processors into OEM partner hands until the end of the year. That means OEMs like HP can't get them qualified and certified in their iron until early next year at best.

The Integrity machines were launched initially in April 2010 and use Intel's Itanium processors and "Boxboro" chipset, which works with both Itanium and Xeon E7 processors, and they use the QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) links to take from two to eight sockets and lash them together into a single system image.

The other Odyssey box is generically called "DragonHawk", and basically takes the Superdome 2 blade server and HP's homegrown sx3000 chipset to make a bigger blade box that spans 8, 16, or 32 sockets. It actually busts out of the top of the BladeSystem c7000 enclosure with a wonking 10U blade that implements a homegrown crossbar interconnect that has its heritage in Convex supercomputers and prior PA-RISC and Itanium Superdome machines.

HP lifted the veil a bit on the first instantiation of the DragonHawk system back in May in a system code-named "Kraken" and tuned up as a box especially for running SAP's HANA in-memory database. This Kraken box will use the impending Xeon E7 chips based on the Ivy Bridge architecture, and will have up to 12TB of memory in a single image.

With that as background, we now come to the expanded HP-NEC alliance.

The two companies will continue their cooperation with the HP-UX operating system, which started in 1995, and the current crop of Itanium-based iron. NEC will also continue getting "classic" BladeSystem iron as well. NEC makes its own Express5800 rack and tower servers and has no need to partner for the equivalent ProLiant machines from HP. But looking ahead, the deal now includes the future Project Odyssey systems, explains Jim Ganthier, vice president of marketing for the HP Servers division.

The alliance, which covers the Asia/Pacific-Japan region, will see NEC and HP collaborating on how to bring the mission-critical capabilities of the HP-UX operating system and the Itanium platforms to the Odyssey boxes running Linux and Windows.

Obviously, with Linux being an open source platform, it is easier to create add-on high availability software for it as well as make contributions to the Linux kernel that make it more ruggedized.

HP has not been clear about what it would like to see added to Windows or how it plans to work with Microsoft to do it, but now NEC is helping in the effort. The companies are aligning their engineering, technical, and testing teams to harden Linux and Windows as part of the re-upped deal.

Ganthier was not at liberty to say what the manufacturing relationship would be between HP and NEC on the future Odyssey boxes, but he did say that in the past HP has supplied base server platforms, and NEC then put in its own enhancements, slapped on its own badges, and sold them.

NEC could, of course, have created its own Express5800 servers using a derivative of its "Azuza" and "Asama" chipsets, which were used to create 32-socket Itanium 2 machines a decade ago. NEC sells eight-socket Express5800 machines based on the Boxboro chipset and "Westmere-EX" Xeon E7 processors from Intel, but these will not scale as far as the Odyssey boxes from HP.

Financial terms of the alliance were not disclosed, but the odds favor there being no money being exchanged at all. HP is no doubt happy to have NEC peddling its products in the APJ region and helping to do some of the work to regionalize software. ®

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