Server vendors have jumped on Intel’s Xeon MP processor to boost performance in the high end and open up a new chapter in IA-32 capability.

Both IBM and Hewlett-Packard have included the chip, which almost doubles the speed of the 900MHz Pentium III Xeon, in products released earlier this month.

The two firms are also creating machines that offer an “always on” capability to increase availability within the enterprise.

The HP servers are a complete refresh of the company’s 32-bit server line, according to Parag Suri, category manager for netservers at HP Canada Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont. “(IA-32) servers make up for more than 80 per cent of today’s server shipments,” said Suri. “As Itanium becomes more and more popular and more pervasive, it will start to become a standard computing architecture in the later part of the decade.”

IBM, meanwhile, is using the Xeon MP in its highest-end Intel server ever. Code named Virgil, the x440 includes an IBM-designed chipset, called Enterprise X Architecture (EXA) that will allow users to bolt servers together and potentially provide greater scaleability.

When users have exceeded the resources of the four-way x440, for example, they can buy a four-way upgrade and slot it into the same chassis, keeping in the four-U height but giving them an eight-way box. “They could certainly design it so that the 16-way box is what they ultimately need,” said Frank Morasutti, manager of Intel high-performance e-server and x-series at Markham, Ont.-based IBM Canada Ltd. “But they may start out with the four-way for development and testing purposes. They’ll keep the four-way or even the eight-way in the lab and that’s what they use for their sandbox, but in production they’ve got two eight-way or single 16-way technology.”

HP’s lineup begins at a server with a single CPU and moves up to a four-way high-end offering, the rc7100. This replaces its lt6000 and is aimed at xSP data centres and enterprises running ERP applications. HP products compete against IA-32 servers from Compaq, but as CDN went to press the two firms were preparing for a shareholder meeting that would determine whether their US$22 billion merger would proceed.

“The reality of the pending merger is that Compaq is really the leader in IA-32 servers,” said, Alan Freedman, analyst for servers and workstations at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto. “”What this does is give customers a bit more confidence in looking at HP’s product line on IA-32 side. They’re really showing a commitment behind supporting this area whether or not the merger goes through.”

Historically, HP has come at the server market from a number of angles, and is generally a leader in the Unix server space. “They have their HP UX Unix operating system and their formerly called 9000 servers, and that was really their strong point,” said Freedman. “They were not an early entrant in to the SIAS (Standard Intel Architecture Server) market.”

He added that Compaq and Dell usually lead the SIAS space, although IBM has also rose to the top recently.

One challenge that affects all players is what Freedman calls “will suffice computing” or otherwise known as “good enough computing.”

“It’s a challenge for everybody right now,” he said. “It’s really spurring on sales of low-end systems because people are buying just what they need to get by.”

However, he added, “it’s something that can’t persist for so long because the computing capacity and the requirements companies have going forward with newer software and new applications – they’re going to need larger systems. This is just sort of a stopgap right now while the economy is in the slide. It’s definitely made vendors rethink their products.”

It’s also why many vendors are hawking total cost of ownership (TCO) instead of addressing acquisition costs, Freedman said.

Morasutti said he was aware of customer’s conservative spending habits, which is why the company believes its modular approach fits growing companies. “We cannot come out with an Intel price at the Intel community, who typically doesn’t look at megabucks investment in hardware. We understand that,” he said. “A RISC customer, an AS/400 customer, a 390 customer typically doesn’t have price up in their top five, whereas the Intel (customer) certainly does.”

Michelle Warren, an analyst with Evans Research in Toronto, said that while HP is the leader in Unix servers in Canada, it ranks fourth when it comes to the Intel-based server market. The launches will open opportunities for VARs, she said. “It gives VARs and distributors time to run down the existing product lines.”

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