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Is HP porting HP-UX to Xeon, or not?

MegWhitmanCoverJust as soon as it seemed obvious HP's Unix was going to run only on its Itanium processors and the Integrity/Superdome servers, new data has emerged to change that limited future. HP CEO Meg Whitman was interviewed as part of the Wall Street Journal's All Things D conference last week. She tossed off a message that HP-UX is on its way to the Intel Xeon processor line.

"She also said that HP will create a version of HP-UX, its version of Unix that will run on Intel’s mainstream server chip known as Xeon," reporter Arik Hesseldahl wrote in Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman Has a Lot to Say. Drilling into the text of the interview, the HP CEO seems to acknowledge that Project Odyssey and a Xeon-native HP-UX are two distinct projects.

We have a lot of customers on Oracle Itanium who... do not want to get off of HP Unix and on to something else. And they kinda like what they have and they’d like to stick with it. I think either way, [the VP of HP Servers, Storage and Networking] Dave Donatelli’s got in the works the next generation of Business Critical Servers on a more open platform. It’s called Odyssey, which is pretty cool. Ultimately we’ve got to build Unix on a Xeon chip, and so we will do that.

"We've got to build Unix on a Xeon chip" means something very different from Dave's Odyssey. The first is a project that HP calculated at $100 million in costs five years ago. The Odyssey takes the best of HP's Unix and puts it into a "hardened Linux" from SUSE. Long before Whitman got to HP, Hewlett-Packard managers at HP SSN decided that the $100 million port was a non-starter. It all reminds me of the no, then yes, then no dance of MPE into, then out of, the Itanium architecture. HP called it IA-64 back then. It used a TV broadcast to its offices to step back from IA-64, then relented a few years later.

But having a CEO confirm a business unit-level project can be scant assurance, especially while talking to anyone but internal HP executives. Carly Fiorina once pledged fealty to the 3000's future, after all.

About one year before the HP 3000 lost its futures inside HP's plans, Fiorina was introducing a sunnier prospect at the 2000 HP World conference. "HP World has grown out of a single customer commitment, one that has lasted 27 years,” Fiorina said. "In 1972 HP introduced the HP 3000, our first multipurpose enterprise computer, a product that has been praised as one of the computer industry’s more enduring success stories. But it didn’t begin that way," she added. "In fact by many counts it got off to quite a rocky start."

The first few systems were plagued by software glitches. And Dave Packard’s personal commitment to his customers turned the HP 3000 story around dramatically. First he sent teams of engineers to work around the clock until the system worked flawlessly. Second, he made sure that any customer upgrades could be easily integrated into existing 3000s. And thanks to his promise to be flexible and grow with the customer, what we’re now calling the e3000 has experienced almost three decades of success, and continues to thrive with a loyal following.

Ann Livermore, another HP executive who's left the HP business unit management team, then followed up Fiorina, telling 3000 customers that their future was unlimited. At least that was the view from her podium during the fall which followed the Y2K transition.

"We know that you count on the e3000 as part of an always-on infrastructure, and also that it needs to continue to deliver competitive price performance," she said, adding another promise. "It’s a great platform. We really appreciate the strong loyalty you’ve shown HP, and we commit to show that loyalty back to you. If you ever want to transition to another operating environment, we intend to be the best possible partner to help you do that. And if you want to use the e3000 forever, that’s great, too."

It all felt good at the time, with the 3000 having crossed Y2K successfully carrying millions of lines of '80s-era code, plus the new PCI-bus servers ready in the wings. But things changed in a dramatic way with HP's acquisition of Compaq. Those 3000 shops who've migrated to HP-UX and Oracle might not want to make a change, and so they will want to draw assurance from the latest public comment from HP's CEO. But it's Donatelli who makes that call about where HP-UX is going -- into a future locked onto Itanium, or toward a commodity platform like Xeon.