HP opens door to x86 chips in mission-critical systems

Hewlett-Packard has made a series of technology announcement that it claims will allow businesses run more mission-critical systems on x86 chips.

The systems that businesses need to be highly available at all times, such as core banking applications, typically run on the Unix operating system. HP’s Unix OS, HP UX, in turn runs on chips such as Intel’s Itanium chipset that offer higher performance than x86 chips, but at significantly higher cost.

Under a project entitled Odyssey, HP yesterday made a number of announcements that it says will allow more use of x86 chips in mission-critical computing.

These include a new range of x86-based blades that can be installed into its HP UX-based Superdome 2 and c-Class mission-critical server platforms. These systems will therefore be able to run both the Windows and Linux operating systems in parallel with HP UX.

According to IDC analyst Nathaniel Martinez, this will help businesses support systems whose core runs on Unix, but whose front-end uses Windows or Linux. "It will allow more flexibility to slice and dice resources according to workloads," he says.

HP is also making some of the high-performance functionality of HP UX available on the Windows and Linux operating systems.

Martinez explains that HP earns about half as much revenue from its HP UX based systems as it does from x86-based server hardware. However, that business is highly profitable, and is often linked to valuable services contracts.

The company therefore needs to make sure it does not lose customers as they look to cut the cost of running their mission critical systems.

However, Martinez also says that businesses with all but the very highest performance demands will be considering systems based on Intel’s Xeon x86 processors, the performance of which is improving all the time. "Xeon is the main competitor to Itanium for mission critical workloads," he says.

Itanium dispute

The Odyssey announcements emerge amid an ongoing legal battle between HP and Oracle, over the latter’s decision to discontinue support for Itanium, and therefore HP UX-based systems.

In March 2011, Oracle announced that future versions of its database software, which is used in many mission critical systems, will not support Itanium chips.

HP claims that this is anti-competitive, and that Oracle wants to force customers to use the hardware it now owns as a result of its acquisition of Sun Microsystems. "We believe that this is an unlawful attempt to force customers from HP Itanium platforms to Oracle’s own platforms," HP said.

Oracle, meanwhile, claims that Intel plans to discontinue Itanium, hence the lack of future support. Intel denies this, however, and says a new generation of Itanium chips is due for release next year.

The dispute is currently being fought in the US. In court, Oracle’s lawyers revealed that HP has approached European antitrust regulators. "They are going literally around the world to every antitrust jurisdiction, trying to say we’re trying to put them out of business," said Oracle’ lawyer Daniel Wall.

Last week, Oracle alleged that HP "secretly contracted with Intel to keep churning out Itaniums so that HP can maintain the appearance that a dead microprocessor is still alive".

Is Odyssey a reaction to Oracle discontinued support for Itanium? "There’s more to it than that," says Martinez. "It’s about the continued expansion of the x86 universe into mission-critical systems."

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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