Apple ready to overtake HP in PCs
Making it Easier, One Decade Later

HP relents, aims Unix sites at x86 futures

It wasn't exactly an announcement while you were sleeping, but HP slipped in the news of its Unix migration during the very slow Thanksgiving business week. For some customers it might be a turkey, and for others who want to get onto Unix for the short term, or stay there and see an HP future, they may be thankful. 

Screen shot 2011-11-28 at 7.01.05 AMHP will start development of a next-gen platform for the future of HP-UX users, one that runs on Intel's Xeon x86 chips, the company announced Nov. 21. HP's Unix will continue to run on the almost-proprietary Itanium chips inside Integrity blades and servers -- and as recently as September HP said it wouldn't port HP-UX. It's Unix is still not making the x86 jump, but the things that make HP's Unix special will make a leap to Linux and Windows. There might be a lot of Unix application rewrites going on, although the GM of the HP Unix unit, Martin Fink, will insist otherwise. For awhile.

HP's new CEO, the need to halt the slide in the Business Critical Systems sales, and flat HP sales overall must have done the trick. "The BCS business is a declining business," said CEO Meg Whitman last Monday in Q4's briefing. "It is a slow decline, but I don't think you're going to see an accelerating growth rate in that business. And so we just have to manage that as best we can and invest in R&D so we get to a new platform as fast as we possibly can that allows us to service the clients that need this kind of power."

The project that HP is calling Odyssey will "redefine the future of mission-critical computing with a development roadmap that will unify Unix and x86 server architectures, to bring industry-leading availability, increased performance and uncompromising client choice to a single platform." What this amounts to is the migration path away from HP-UX to Linux, something many of HP's Unix customers have seen in their futures for some time. An intensive article with the tech details of how HP's going to leverage its latest Itanium sockets into x86 is online at The Register. "We are systematically evaluating the arsenal of intellectual property for HP-UX and mapping that to x86 platforms," the article quotes the BCS chief technologist.

"Some of the technologies that make HP-UX and its Integrity and Superdome platforms rock-solid will end up being donated to the Linux kernel," the article adds.

What's not stated in that HP press release is the future of Itanium in the HP server line. A "single platform" signals that the Intel Xeon chip family is going to win out in HP's near future. This probably means the end of the Itanium developments from Intel, after its next two processor rolls become a reality. Perhaps sooner, if the demand for Itanium servers keeps sliding.

For the next two years Itanium is likely to remain as key to HP's Unix as it has during its declining period, if the history of bringing an HP OS to a platform holds up. For more than three years during the previous decade, HP worked on getting HP-UX to run as fast on Itanium as it did on the company's prior proprietary chips, PA-RISC. In that case there was more development going on inside the chips than in the OS. This time around it's HP's primary job to make its Unix distinctions a choice for the more common and popular x86-Linux line.

Bad news for the users of the other Itanium-locked environments, however: NonStop and OpenVMS transitions to x86 are not part mentioned in Project Odyssey. The language to be teased apart in the announcement says there will be "innovations to HP Integrity servers, HP NonStop systems and the HP-UX and OpenVMS operating systems." But only Unix customers will be given a path for their enterprise advantages onto the industry standard (read: x86) among HP's environments. HP is likely to tell NonStop and VMS users they won't need such industry standard pathways to keep their servers growing and on par with the x86 line. Itanium is going to go far enough.

HP 3000 customers will recall a similar stance from HP back in the earliest days when the vendor hawked Itanium futures. We all know how turning MPE away from Itanium turned out, although the difference is that the VMS and NonStop lines have more users than MPE/iX did in 2001. Both VMS and NonStop have a lot fewer installations than HP's Unix, however.

"Customers need the availability and resilience of Unix-based platforms along with the familiarity and cost-efficiency of industry-standard platforms," HP said in a statement. HP specifically cites Oracle as a heavy anchor to Itanium sales. This Odessey move has a lot to do with Oracle's pullout from Itanium development. Although HP is suing Oracle to back off of that plan, getting Unix users onto a path to x86 will let HP continue to sell HP-UX servers as Oracle servers -- until the Odyssey is complete.

Martin Fink, the GM of the beleaguered BCS unit -- its sales dropped 23 percent in Q4 -- said that customer demands are driving this odyssey.

Clients have been asking us to expand the mission-critical experience that is delivered today with HP-UX on Integrity to an x86-based infrastructure. HP plans to transform the server landscape for mission-critical computing by using the flexibility of HP BladeSystem and bringing key HP technology innovations from Integrity and HP-UX to the x86 ecosystem. Unlike the competition, HP offers an open, integrated, single platform approach.

Note that the word "migrated" is omitted from Fink's "innovations" sentence above. HP's got to do that migrating. HP-UX apps will be making their own transition, this time to a new OS (Linux) instead of a new HP chipset (PA-RISC to Itanium). There doesn't seem to be a HP-UX 11 v4 in the fortune teller's cards.

Project Odyssey provides assurance to current and new clients that HP-UX / Integrity environments will continue to be supported and enhanced through the decade and beyond. Clients investing in a mission-critical Converged Infrastructure today with Integrity and HP-UX, if desired, can evolve to a mission-critical Linux/Windows environment in the future.

The key to the HP strategy is going be moving those mission-critical and high-performance elements of HP's Unix to x86 hardware. That's going to translate, if HP can pull it off, to giving a Hewlett-Packard instance of Windows or Linux a leg up in a competitive market against IBM and Oracle -- even while HP says Oracle is running a distant third in the Unix server race of this year. HP's promises include:

    • Increase scalability with 32-socket “DragonHawk” symmetrical multiprocessing x86 systems that will scale to hundreds of cores and support large, complex workloads. The systems will enable clients to deploy the smallest to the largest workloads in a dynamic, highly scalable pool of IT resources.
    • Increase reliability and flexibility with two-, four- and eight-socket “HydraLynx” scalable x86 server blades with mission-critical virtualization and availability, all packaged in the robust c-Class enclosures of HP BladeSystem.
    • Increase availability of critical Linux applications with the HP Serviceguard solution, which automatically moves application workloads between servers in the event of a failure or an on-demand request.
    • Boost flexibility and availability of x86 systems with HP nPartitions technology (nPars), which provides precise partitioning of system resources across multiple or variable workloads. HP nPars is electrically isolated to eliminate failure points, which allows clients to “scale out” within a single, robust system.
    • Enhance business continuity with HP Analysis Engine for x86 embedded into the system firmware. HP Analysis Engine goes beyond error logging to ensure efficient diagnoses and automatic repair of complex system errors while restoring system stability in seconds.
    • Boost reliability and resiliency of x86 systems with fault-tolerant HP Crossbar Fabric that intelligently routes data within the system for redundancy and high availability.

There's not a word about HP-UX in the Odessy summary above. It's a lot of hardware that will not come close to serving HP's Unix customer.

So in a nutshell, that's symmetrical processing with a new 32-socket design of x86 systems, the DragonHawk line that correlates to the SuperDome systems of today. Then there's HydraLynx, which maps to the C3000 Itanium blade systems in the current line -- plus migrating Serviceguard, nPartions technology, the Analysis Engine and engineering the Crossbar Fabric into x86 systems. These last four items appeal to the large-scale enterprise customer who's been sticking with HP-UX.

HP didn't announce a timetable for delivering its new generation of Unix-migration x86 hardware systems. There's some talk of two years, and HP didn't cancel HP-UX futures or the Itanium hardware outright. But now the company gets to make an announcement, in order to stop the questions from BCS customers, about a transition away from its Unix. Mainly, that when a customer wants to make a Linux migration, HP will have consolidated hardware to do so, iron that provides the best of HP-UX features on Linux and Windows. Whether Oracle is going to keep its place running on HP-UX servers in the future -- no matter what Oracle decides to do, or be sued into doing -- is now going to about Itanium, not keeping the large-scale enterprise customer on HP iron.

Building up HP-UX hardware is pretty much over in the futures department. HP talks about retaining the best of HP-UX -- but not NonStop and VMS -- and building up Windows and Linux. There seems little way to view this but the admission that Itanium's got a limited development future at HP. If ever there was a message that says x86 isn't on the HP-UX roadmap, this path seems clearer than ever.