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HP aims to stick IBM with new blades

Presents c-Class

The surgeons within HP have performed an impressive gutting and reconstruction of the company's blade server line. HP today revealed a new chassis and new blade servers that make up its c-Class systems.

HP has been working on the fresh hardware for three years, and the arrival of the c-Class gear marks the most significant blade server redesign from a Tier 1 server vendor to date. A number of new management, cooling and networking features have been bundled into the c7000 chassis, which address many of the problems customers have faced with the compact blade servers. HP hopes the latest line of systems can finally help it wrest the blade server market share lead from IBM.

You can see a shot of the c7000 chassis here. Note that even the pulled out blades remain powered on. Magic!

The 10U high chassis can hold up to 16 of HP's half-height multicore, dual-processor blade servers or eight full-height systems. The box also has eight interconnect bays, up to 10 fans, up to six power supplies and two administrator systems.

On the networking front, customers can pick from Ethernet, Fibre Channel and Infiniband.

The new chassis is much larger than HP's existing p-Class enclosure, which starts out at 6U and stretches to 7U and 9U with power enclosures. The c7000, however, has more networking options, more than double the memory support, redundant administration consoles and a centralized cooling system. HP is particularly proud of the "Active Cool Fans" that cut energy consumption by up to 50 per cent and make less noise than standard fans.

Initially, customers will only be able to pick from Xeon-based blades. You can grab the half-height BL460c or the full-height BL480c. Both boxes hold two processors. HP has been painfully thin on additional information about the blades, as you can see here.

HP will be more upfront about the Xeon systems next week when Intel officially releases "Woodcrest." You can then expect HP to expound on Opteron blades with AMD's Rev F delivery and on Montecito blades in July. HP won't be shipping four-socket boxes right away, but does plan to launch such systems along with kit based on lower voltage chips from Intel and AMD.

For those customers who have already invested in HP's proprietary p-Class line, the company has tossed you a bone. It will keep selling the current gear through 2007 and support the systems through 2012.

During a rather embarrassing scripted presentation, HP executives walked reporters here at the company's headquarters through some of the other advances with the new blades. The latest and greatest tools include the Virtual Connect architecture for virtualizing I/O on-the-fly, Thermal Logic Technologies for power management and the Insight Control Data Center Edition 1.0 software package for managing a mix of Windows and Linux blades.

By this Fall, HP plans to ship Insight Control Linux Edition, which will contain the Control Tower software it acquired form blade server pioneer RLX.

It's the Virtual Connect architecture that's being pitched as the special sauce behind the new blades. HP describes Virtual Connect as "a five terabit mid-place with eight high-performance interconnect bays in the back to enable customers to manage and connect to the existing standards and familiar brands in their data center such as Cisco, Brocade or Nortel. All third-party and HP interconnect options are hot-pluggable and can be deployed in pairs for full-redundancy."

Quite the mouthful.

On a broader level, Virtual Connect creates the fabled "abstract layer" between servers, storage systems and networking units. HP tells us that this will make it possible to create "a pool of up to 64 servers, allowing administrators to define a server's I/O connections to independently manage blade servers and their connectivity. Connections and configurations between server blades and the LAN and SAN can then be deployed at the click of a button, and migrated to another server bay instantly - all without disturbing the LAN or the SAN settings or administrators."

A friend of ours described the technology more succinctly, "In a nutshell, what Virtual Connect represents is that up to four enclosures can look like one LAN and one SAN connection to the upstream switches. Typically, the holdup in deployments is that the LAN and SAN administrators can take weeks to provision IP addresses, DNS and Worldwide SAN names for servers. Virtual Connect allows the server guys to PRE-provision all this stuff before the blade even hits the enclosure."

Unlike in the past, you can also pack a c-Class chassis full of StorageWorks blades and create an entire storage box.

HP and others continue to pitch blade servers, which share networking, power and storage, as real winners over traditional rack-mount servers. Sadly, none of the Tier 1s has focused much on the original space-saving aspect of blade servers. There are density gains to be had, but HP and IBM seem content to give up on the notion of packing a rack full of hundreds of low-power systems.

With the ISP data center build out underway again – as evidenced by the hundreds of millions being spent by the likes of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! – there seems to be room for a focused player to go back to the blade basics. So far, Rackable Systems has answered this call with generic rack-mount boxes, but we suspect something like Sun's upcoming Niagara-based "Montoya" blades could provide a more elegant option.

Without question, HP has put pressure on IBM with the latest blade server release, although IBM has done a grand job of reflecting HP's past blade work.

"You will undoubtedly hear lots of noise from our competitors because we have got them scared," said HP EVP Ann Livermore, at the blade event, barely audible over HP's blades.

She insisted that Dell lacks enterprise "experience," that Sun "can't do any of this," and that HP has "leapfrogged IBM on every single dimension with this announcement."

The HP sales team is quite excited about the arrival of the c-Class gear and understandably so.

HP has crafted a chassis that's meant to last customers about five years. The company then backs up this box with a flood of homemade management software that only IBM can really rival. Without being too glowing, we suspect that HP really has set the standard for other Tier 1s to follow at this point.

You'll find more on the HP blades here. ®

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