HP beats rivals to the punch with blade servers

Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) launched a suite of compact blade servers Tuesday, giving users the largest range on offer and positioning itself as a leader among large vendors in offering the emerging blade server technology.

Blade systems are complete servers on a single circuit board, several of which can be inserted into a compact chassis sharing a single bus and power supply, to provide the maximum number of servers in the smallest possible space. Blade servers also consolidate power cords and other cabling over a common backplane, making it easier for users to physically manage servers.

The blades can be specialized for particular tasks, such as Web hosting, media streaming, encryption, or file storage -- or management of other servers, depending on their hardware design or the software installed. The first model, the bc1100 blade server, will ship in volume in January, built around a 700MHz Intel Corp. Pentium III processor with 512M bytes of error checking and correcting memory and a 30G-byte hard disk, according to Jon Jacob, HP's marketing manager for entry-level server systems. Customers can have any operating system they like pre-installed on the hot-swappable card -- as long as it's Linux. They will have a choice of the Red Hat Inc., SuSE Linux AG or Debian distributions. The basic blade will sell for US$1,925, Jacob said.

HP's blades are designed to plug into an industry standard CompactPCI bus and pack 38 to a 13U-high chassis. The 1U (1.75 inches or 44.5 millimeters) is a standard measure of height in 19-inch-wide rack-mounted server systems.

HP will sell a basic system consisting of a bh7800 blade server chassis, one management blade and one bc1100 server blade running Linux for $9,450, Jacob said.

Other operating systems and processor configurations will come later: A model with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system pre-installed will be available by March, said Mark Hudson, director of worldwide marketing for HP's Business Systems and Technology Organization.

In the first half of 2002, a blade based on HP's PA-RISC processor will ship with the company's HP-UX flavor of the Unix operating system, he said.

HP has an early lead with blade technology among the large hardware vendors. Smaller companies such as RLX Technologies Inc. have been selling blade servers for some time with RLX also licensing its products to IBM Corp. None of the top-tier hardware companies, however, have shipped a product developed in-house.

"What you have seen so far is products from smaller companies," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc. "A company like HP that has blade servers, appliances, software and services that all fit together has advantages over the smaller guys. The fact that HP is in a position where they can assist a customer with putting these things together could give them a step up over a single platform."

In a down economy it can be hard to sell customers on a new technology, and a number of blade server companies like Rebel.com Inc. have gone out of business. Nonetheless, HP is confident that the space-saving features and the low energy cost of blades will entice users.

"In the initial stage of selling these, it does take a little more human interaction," HP's Hudson said. "But customers have been pleased with the performance they are seeing, and once a few of these are sold we expect more will follow."

Users should also find that a blade architecture makes it easier to switch out servers and replace parts, Illuminata' Haff said.

"With blades, you can just plug something in and pull it out," Haff said. "You don't have to go back and unscrew parts of a standard rackmount server or deal with the sea of cascading cords running down the back."

In its first chassis, users will be able to mix and match different types of blades in 38 slots. A user could, for example, put in 16 server blades, 16 storage blades, a management blade and then possibly five switch blades. All of the blades could then be managed as one entire system or as individual components with HP's OpenView management software, Hudson said.

HP is looking to the variety of its blade products along with its early launch of blade servers to help it gain market share against rivals, in particular Sun Microsystems Inc.

"We think Sun is very much exposed by what we are doing," Hudson said. "We think it is time to take some low-end market share away from Sun."

Sun has yet to articulate a blade strategy or announce any types of blade products, despite giving the name Sun Blade 1000 to a range of conventional workstations. In recent interviews, the company refused to say it is even has any type of blade technology in the works.

While Sun is usually clear about its long term strategy, Haff said the low end is one area where the company may have fallen behind.

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