February 24, 2004 1:09 PM PST

HP plans Opteron servers, AMD partnership

Hewlett-Packard announced three servers that use Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron chip and a long-term partnership with the chipmaker but strenuously argued that the move doesn't undermine servers using another processor: Intel's Itanium.

HP, following IBM and Sun Microsystems, on Tuesday became the third of the four major server sellers to use AMD's processor, which has elbowed into a market that Intel has had to itself for years. HP announced two-Opteron and four-Opteron servers, as expected, and plans to sell a thin dual-Opteron blade server by the end of the third quarter.

Opteron, like future Xeon and Pentium chips from Intel, adds 64-bit extensions to the widely used "x86" processor architecture, a move that dramatically expands the amount of memory a server can use.

But in a conference call announcing the new servers, HP executives spent much of their time arguing that the company's embracement of 64-bit Xeon and Opteron processors doesn't detract from its commitment to Intel's competing 64-bit Itanium server processor, which HP initiated and co-developed.

"These two architectures are complementing each other very well," said Scott Stallard, senior vice president of HP's Enterprise Storage and Servers group. "Our commitments to Integrity (HP's Itanium-based server line) do not change. In fact, they're strengthened by this announcement today."

Some met the assertion that 64-bit x86 chips helps Itanium with skepticism.

"The x86 extensions aren't necessarily a bad thing for HP. They're one of the leaders, if not the leader, in that space. But help Itanium specifically? I don't think so," said Gordon Haff, an Illuminata analyst. "Sure, Itanium's still a better choice for high-function computing, but x86 extensions clearly offer a more natural evolution to those on-the-cusp folks who just need a bit more memory and speed."

AMD and HP didn't detail the extent of their partnership other than saying it will last several years and that HP will invest millions of dollars in it, said Paul Miller, vice president of industry standard server marketing for HP. The partnership is "a foundation to enable our engineers to work closely together and start defining next-generation technologies," he said.

Itanium competition?
HP began the Itanium project in 1988, and it and Intel have invested more than a decade of cooperative work on the design. Faced with Itanium delays and the continued success of Xeon, however, the companies are now positioning Itanium chiefly for high-end servers rather than the design that will prevail, as other architectures fall by the wayside.

"I don't think x86 is running out of steam. x86 as a server platform technology seems destined to play a role forever," Stallard said.

The faith in x86's longevity raised Haff's eyebrows. "I think they've hired some writers from the Soviet school of revisionist history," he said.

Itanium also has a glorious history before it, Stallard said. "We've taken everything we know about computer architecture development and put it into Itanium," he said. "If you are planning out the next 15 to 20 years, we believe it will last that long (a) time."

IBM and Sun, which unlike HP aren't phasing out their own high-end chips in favor of Itanium, place much more emphasis on 64-bit x86.

IBM sells Itanium servers but expresses more excitement about x86, with plans for a 64-processor Xeon system in 2005. The easy software capability of 64-bit x86 with earlier x86 software means that x86 has the natural, incumbent advantage over Itanium.

Sun, while late to the x86 server market, believes that it can get an edge through aggressive advancement of Opteron servers and by bringing its Solaris version of Unix to x86 servers.

Stallard derided IBM for having merely a niche product, compared with HP's mainstream Opteron move. And he said Sun's software effort is late and lacks support of software companies. "Solaris on Opteron has no ecosystem and will take years to build," he said.

New server details
The dual-Opteron ProLiant DL145, a rack-mountable model 1.75 inches thick, will be available by March 5, Miller said. With a single 1.6GHz Opteron and 1GB of memory, it costs $1,599; upgrading to a 2.2GHz chip increases the cost to $2,999.

The four-Opteron ProLiant DL585, 7 inches tall, will be available by April 9, Miller said. HP will release pricing in the next quarter. It has a maximum memory capacity of 64GB.

The dual-processor models are a design from manufacturing specialist Celestica, Miller said, but the four-processor and blade models are designed by HP.

The blade server, due in the third quarter, could use new low-voltage Opterons that AMD announced last week, Miller said. Low-voltage processors sacrifice some processing power in exchange for lower power consumption and less waste heat and, therefore, can be packed more densely.

Ben Williams, director of AMD's server and workstation business, said the new Opteron 246 consumes 55 watts of power and that the Opteron 240 consumes 30 watts. By contrast, the higher-end Opterons consume 89 watts, he said.

The Opteron systems will initially come with 32-bit versions of Windows or Linux. Within 60 to 90 days, 64-bit versions of Linux will arrive on the servers, HP said. Microsoft's 64-bit version of Windows is expected by the end of the year.

AMD's Opteron currently outperforms Intel's Xeon, but HP expects the two chipmakers to leapfrog each other in coming years, Stallard said.

 

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