HP readies final update to PA-RISC line

Hewlett-Packard Co. is set to begin shipping the final processor upgrade to its HP 9000 line of Unix servers.

The new chip, called the PA-8900, is expected to be introduced at a press event held at the ENSA@WORK – HP Enterprise Forum in Copenhagen on May 31, where HP also will announce enhancements to its NonStop fault-tolerant servers, according to people familiar with the announcement.

The PA-8900 will have a much larger L2 memory cache than its predecessor, the PA-8800, but will operate at clock speeds that are only slightly faster than the PA-8800, according to HP’s Web site. Both processors house two separate processing engines, called cores, on each chip, a technique that allows them to process data more quickly than do conventional, single-core processors.

The new processor will be last in the line of PA-RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors that have powered HP’s Unix systems since the late 1980s. HP has said it will support the HP 9000 servers that use these processors until 2011, but it has abandoned further development on the chips as part of a company-wide embrace of Intel Corp.’s Itanium 2 processors, which power HP’s Integrity servers.

According to HP’s Web site, the PA-8900 will be available in 800MHz, 1GHz and 1.1GHz configurations with 64M bytes of on-chip cache. The PA-8800 has a maximum clock speed of 1.0GHz and supports a cache of 32M bytes.

The new processors will be available in HP’s full range of HP 9000 servers, ranging from the dual-processor rp3410 to the PA-RISC version of Superdome, which ships with as many as 128 processors. The new chip will cost the same as its predecessor, according to HP’s Web site.

HP observers had expected the PA-8900 to have a clock speed in the range of 1.2GHz to 1.5GHz. But according to industry analyst Rich Partridge, it is not surprising that HP decided to release such a modest update, given the fact that it has bet its future on the Integrity line.

“HP is committed to Itanium as its high-end processor,” said Partridge, who is lead server analyst with Ideas International Inc., in Port Chester, New York. “HP wants to pour all of its investments and attentions into accelerating the user acceptance of the Itanium product,” he said.

While HP 9000 users were probably looking for a bigger performance jump, a faster PA-8900 would “allow them to be comfortable staying on PA-RISC for a longer amount of time,” he said, adding, “I don’t think HP wants to prolong the transition any longer.”

So far, HP’s customers have been reluctant to move to the Integrity systems, but things have been picking up recently. Sales of Integrity servers in the three months ended April 30 were up 37 percent, year over year, the company said last week when it reported its most recent financial results.

Though the PA-8900 will be the final processor upgrade for the HP 9000, it is not the final innovation. HP is readying a new chipset, code named Arches, for the high end of the HP 9000 line. Arches is expected to begin shipping in the first quarter of 2006 and will have three to four times as much bandwidth between components as does HP’s current offerings.

Also in 2006, HP will ship a major new release of its Unix operating system for both HP 9000 and Integrity servers. Called HP-UX 11i v3, the software will feature a rewritten I/O stack and enhanced virtualization and partition management, according to HP.

HP declined to comment on the specifics of next week’s announcement, except to confirm that it plans to introduce enhancements to the HP 9000 and NonStop product lines.

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