HP shrinks the data centre

On a visit to Hewlett-Packard’s Palo Alto laboratory, the tour of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard’s old offices is not to be missed. The sparsely furnished, cork-tile floored rooms are a shrine to the company’s founders and a reminder of the modest roots of a now mighty global company. They are possibly the only modest things left at HP.

There was certainly nothing subdued about the claims HP made for its latest BladeSystem c-Class data technology at its launch in June 2006. “A breakthrough architecture”; “a data centre in a box”; and, according to HP technology solutions group senior vice president Ann Livermore, a fundamentally different way of building data infrastructure that will “dramatically reduce the biggest IT cost drivers and barriers to change in today’s racked, stacked and wired data centres.”

Specifically, HP claims that a troika of systems management, virtualisation and heat and power management technologies introduced with the new c7000 blade enclosure will together cut the acquisition cost of blade server systems by 41%, reduce data centre operating costs by 60%, and automate or eliminate some routine processes, to the extent that the time taken to configure a new server might be reduced by 96%.

Overall, HP promises to more than halve the total cost of ownership of data centre systems whilst also providing customers with the flexible infrastructure they need to build a truly adaptable enterprise.

“We are reducing the barriers to change in today’s racked, stacked and wired data centres.”

Ann Livermore, Hewlett-Packard

If only partially true, HP’s claims are great for customers, and potentially even better news for the company itself. Since helping to pioneer the blade concept in the late 1990s, HP has consistently trailed behind IBM in a global market that last year was worth $1.2 billion last year. However, analysts group IDC expects blade sales to more than double in 2006, and to reach $10 billion by 2009. Blade technology “is going to be the fastest growing architecture in the history of the computer industry,” says Livermore, and “Hewlett-Packard is going to ride this trend to become the leading IT company in the world.”

Other HP executives are just as bullish. Paul Miller, VP of marketing with HP’s industry standard server and blade server division, believes the future of all IT infrastructure lies in bladed components, and that the fight to blade the world is already a two horse race. “Dell doesn’t have the management systems, and Sun doesn’t have anything at all,” he says. The only obstacle to HP’s blade ambitions is IBM, a company that, Miller claims, “recently consolidated around a five year-old architecture that can never match the [server] density that we offer.”

HP thinks IBM’s blade installed base is a sitting duck, and it is preparing a special set of migration incentives to help IBM customers become converts. Even without such sale sweetening packages, HP may have a point. The Insight Control management utilities in c-Class offer a simple but comprehensive toolset for configuring servers that, HP claims, can turn a three day task for three people, into a 30 minute task for one. Similarly, the new Virtual Connect Architecture – based around the c-Class enclosure’s super fast 5TB/s backplane – offers a wire-once-reconfigure-many-times capability that turns normally dedicated Ethernet and Fibre Channel connections into virtual resources.

Both of these new technologies go a long way toward realising what Livermore calls the first “adaptive enterprise infrastructure” – an infinitely flexible set of dynamically configurable, server, storage and networking components on which customers can begin to develop tomorrow’s similarly dynamic, flexible and automated business processes.

But this may not prove to be the most immediate or compelling reason for customers to buy c-Class – that is more likely to be the architecture’s genuinely innovative power and heat management capabilities which HP has dubbed Thermal Logic.

The timing for HP’s introduction of thermal logic could hardly be any better. Since blade densities have begun to grow, so too has the cost of powering and cooling the data centre. With thermal logic HP is the first server vendor to offer an innovative solution to this problem, and is even able to show that as blade densities in c-Class enclosures increase, the architecture’s parallel scalable enterprise cooling (Parsec) technology actually becomes more rather than less effective.

Parsec encompasses a number of complementary technologies including a multi-patented Active Cool fan that, like the other components in c-Class, can offer an automated response to changing operational conditions. HP claims Parsec can cut typical data centre electricity bills by 33%, which in some cases may be enough to cost justify a c-Class investment within a year. If its competitors fail to keep their cool, it may even be enough to turn HP into the world’s most popular computer maker.

Further reading

The future of the data centre – feature, March 2005

More on data centre issues in the IT Infrastructure Briefing Room

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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