HP to double the processor count in Itanium servers

HP plans to make it possible to upgrade current servers based on the 64-bit Itanium 2 chip by allowing customers to replace existing processor cards with new ones that contain twice as many chips, said Shane Robison, senior vice-president of corporate strategy and technology and chief technology officer at HP, during a Tuesday Web cast of the company’s analyst conference.

This technology will also work with future generations of the Itanium processor and should provide a performance boost for HP’s systems. It will also work as a stopgap measure to help HP compete in the server market as Intel does not plan to release similar technology known as a multi-core processor until 2005 or 2006.

“We have developed our own dual processor cache daughter card,” Robison said. “Customers can double the number of CPUs (central processing units) within most HP systems – anything that has a McKinley, which is Itanium 2, in it or the Madison processor – simply by upgrading to this daughter card.”

HP will make the dual processor cards available in the first half of 2004. The card will contain the third-generation Madison chips, which are due out in the first half of 2003. Customers with either McKinley servers or Madison-based servers will be able upgrade two to 64 processor systems when the cards arrive in 2004, HP said.

Doubling the processor count in its high-end servers would help HP compete against IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. IBM has already rolled out a dual-core Power4 processor for its Unix server line. Sun and HP also plan to release dual-core chips for their servers based on RISC (reduced instruction set computing) technology next year. HP, however, had not previously announced similar technology for its Itanium line of servers that will eventually replace its RISC systems.

Packing more processors into existing servers helps customers make a significant upgrade without paying for a new chassis. HP users will be able to boost the performance of their systems by ripping out daughter cards with the old processors and replacing them with the new double processor cards, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at market research company Mercury Research Inc. in Cave Creek, Ariz.

“In general, with an SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) system, when you add more processors, you get more performance,” McCarron said. “It depends on the applications, though, as to how well it will scale.”

HP’s approach to boosting the processor count on its Itanium servers differs from the dual-core technology employed on RISC systems used in chips from Sun, IBM and on other HP servers. HP’s new double processor daughter cards simply add an extra set of processors onto the card, which then plugs into the motherboard. With dual-core designs, two processor cores are put on the same piece of silicon and link the cores via a shared cache.

Both approaches to adding processors can work and performance will be a result of how well the companies design their servers, McCarron said.

“It really depends,” he said. “One of the advantages of having a true multi-core design is that all of the communication between the processors takes place at the maximum speed possible.”

HP’s decision to make the double processor cards will buy the company some time before Intel ships full fledged multi-core chips later in the decade. HP, which co-developed Itanium with Intel, said this move is an example of its ability to add technology to a chip it does not manufacture.

“This gives us another example where we invest and innovate on top of industry standard components,” Robison said.

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