HP ANNIVERSARY - HP software strategy still in flux

Hardware represents most of Hewlett-Packard's product focus, but the company has several software products it needed to stabilize after the acquisition was completed, such as its Unix operating systems, its middleware and the OpenView systems management platform.

After laying out a roadmap for its software shortly after the completion of the acquisition, HP now must execute on its stated intentions, particularly beefing up its HP-UX operating system with features from Tru64 Unix, continuing to invest in and develop OpenView and developing its partner approach toward middleware.

HP has made the decision to phase out Tru64 Unix, which it inherited from Compaq, and integrate some of its key features into its own HP-UX, a plan longtime DEC/Compaq/HP observer Terry Shannon likened to "a multiple organ transplant."

"There are a lot of special things that reside down within the (Tru64 Unix) kernel, and HP has cashiered most of the Tru64 kernel developers. How will they implement this merged enterprise Unix?" said Shannon, who publishes the newsletter "Shannon Knows HPC" out of his office in Carrollton, Texas.

The new version of HP-UX will draw from Tru64 Unix's clustering technology, but otherwise remain fairly close to older versions, said Mary McDowell, senior vice president and general manager for industry standard servers in HP's enterprise services group (ESG).

"HP decided for HP-UX and that was the right decision, because HP-UX is clearly the market leader compared with Tru64 Unix," said David Freund, an analyst at Illuminata Inc.

However, he cautions that grafting Tru64 Unix's clustering capabilities and file system into HP-UX may be more difficult than HP anticipates. HP is on the record as saying that the first version of HP-UX to feature Tru64 Unix's TruCluster Server and Advanced File System will be HP-UX 11i version 3, due in 2004. "It remains an open question whether they can hold to that timeframe," Freund said.

HP does have in its favor that Tru64 Unix users are "religiously faithful," Freund said. "They bought into that platform for specific reasons, such as its performance attributes and clustering capabilities," he said.

Consequently, most of those users have adopted a wait-and-see attitude for the moment, he said. To get them to migrate from their Tru64 Unix Alpha systems to HP-UX servers using Intel Corp's 64-bit Itanium chip, HP will need to deliver clustering functionality that is equivalent to what these users have with Tru64 Unix today, not just a subset of it, Freund warned. Otherwise, HP risks seeing these users bolt to its competitors, he said.

HP's Linux strategy is also on the minds of customers, especially in how it relates to the future of OpenVMS, which HP has pledged to continue developing and supporting according to the plan Compaq had sketched out for it prior to the acquisition. But many users fear that HP will phase out support for OpenVMS as it promotes the new HP-UX and Linux as the operating systems for the remaining Alpha systems and future Itanium boxes.

Hal Kuff, a vice president of technology and HP user at wireless technology distributor Tessco Technologies Inc. in Hunt Valley, Maryland, is a current OpenVMS user. Kuff wants to know how support for Linux and Oracle Corp. software will play out on Itanium. "If Oracle provides stable RACs (Real Application Clusters) on Linux and Itanium, we'd be very inclined to pursue that option. But we can't just jump to a new OS without Oracle support; we're highly dependent on OpenVMS for its features," he said.

On a related note, HP also plans to port OpenVMS and the operating system of its NonStop Himalaya servers, called the NonStop Kernel, over to Itanium.

When it comes to middleware, an important part of the enterprise IT architecture that includes application server software and various messaging and integration products, HP chose to pursue a partnering strategy rather than develop its own products. The decision was a U-turn for the company, which two years earlier had shelled out an estimated US$470 million to acquire Bluestone Software. That company's products became HP's Netaction family of middleware.

HP announced last June that it would "retire" those products in favor of partnerships with other vendors. Analysts decried the loss of Bluestone's well-regarded products, and some questioned HP's ability to serve as the complete provider of enterprise products and services that it had pledged to become. HP saw things differently.

The Netaction group had been losing money, and rather than continue to invest in it, HP struck partnership deals. BEA Systems Inc. and Oracle said they would bundle a version of their Java application servers with HP's systems. On the other side, HP strengthened its ties with Microsoft to offer customers that company's .Net software. HP said it emerged as a "platform neutral" vendor in a world where enterprises want a mixture of Java and .Net products. Some analysts called it a smart move, others said HP missed a chance to become a leader in middleware.

"HP needs to continue to sell its story of how and why its (middleware) partner approach is best" compared to the strategies of Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM Corp., each of which develops its own middleware, Illuminata's Freund said.

Regarding the OpenView systems management platform, HP is positioning it as its enterprise-level offering and tying its and Compaq's other management tools to it, through integration or links. Since the Compaq acquisition closed, HP has been paying more attention to OpenView, a good move, Freund said.

"For much of its life, OpenView has suffered from neglect, and been kind of an afterthought," Freund said. Now it appears HP has made it a higher priority and made a bigger commitment to it, he said.

In the next 12 months, HP should continue investing effort and money in OpenView to make it a stronger platform that enterprises will be inclined to use, regardless of hardware platform, said Crawford Del Prete, an IDC analyst.

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