HP sets the stage for Alpha’s last hurrah

Hewlett-Packard Co. is gearing up for the launch of a long-awaited line of AlphaServers that promises to deliver substantial price/performance gains over existing technology.

But HP’s previously announced plans to eventually standardize all of its servers on Intel Itanium processors may temper some of the enthusiasm the announcement would otherwise have generated, analysts said.

HP gained the Alpha technology through last year’s purchase of Compaq Computer Corp. AlphaServers run the OpenVMS and Tru64 Unix operating systems and were scheduled to be phased out of production even before HP’s merger with Compaq. The company’s AlphaServer business is deep in the red and is expected to lose about US$200 million this fiscal year alone.

HP’s Marvel family of AlphaServers is based on the company’s recently released EV7 processors, with models ranging from a two-CPU departmental server to a 64-processor enterprise server. HP recently confirmed the planned Marvel announcement but declined to provide details on the systems or migration strategy in advance. However, much of that information has been freely available to the Alpha faithful, most recently from HP, and from Compaq before that.

Apart from the faster EV7 processors, the new Marvel departmental and enterprise servers will feature a technology called switchless mesh architecture that allows users to add processors, memory and I/O capacity “almost like Lego blocks,” according to information posted on HP’s Web site.

The servers will support multipath I/O technology for greater system availability and dynamic partitioning capabilities. The servers also come with a new system management console designed for centralized administration.

HP’s Marvel plan says a lot about the company’s intent to stick with its post-merger product commitments, said Fernando Yson, systems manager at Unicare/Cost Care. The Huntington Beach, Calif.-based health insurer has several small to midsize AlphaServers running homegrown applications.

When the time comes for an upgrade, it will most likely be to Itanium instead of Alpha because of HP’s road map, Yson said. “But we are going to wait for other users to test it first before migrating.”

The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, which has beta-tested the EV7-based servers, has ordered a “fair amount” of the systems, said Michael Levine, scientific director at the federally supported center.

The new servers will supplement the organization’s existing 3,000-node AlphaServer cluster, the largest non-defence supercomputer in the U.S., according to Levine. The servers’ very high bandwidth performance and interconnect technologies are what make them appealing, Levine said.

HP’s decision to switch its server technology to Itanium in the future “doesn’t make things any easier,” said Levine. “But it is the sort of thing people are used to and should in most cases be manageable.”

The new capabilities make for “faster, better, cheaper systems with much higher performance and much lower latency” than previous-generation Wildfire AlphaServers, said Terry Shannon, publisher of Shannon Knows HPC, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based newsletter. The new servers should appeal to many larger users that would need years to migrate off Alpha, Shannon said.

Still, the migration issue is a thorny one.

“Last year, I would have said that this was some really great and exciting technology,” said Rich Partridge, an analyst at D.H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, N.Y. But with Marvel likely to be the Alpha family’s last hurrah, users must get commitments from HP that guarantee investment protection when they move to Itanium processors, he said.

HP has said it will support the Alpha installed base for as long as necessary. Its AlphaServer customer assurance program offers money-back guarantees, technology-refresh incentives, guaranteed trade-in values and transition lease programs for systems purchased through December 2003.