HP Unveils High-End x86 Superdome, NonStop Servers

The tech vendor is bringing Intel Xeon chips to its mission-critical systems, which until now had been powered by the controversial Itanium platform.

HP server

Three years after announcing plans to enable businesses to run their mission-critical workloads on x86 systems, Hewlett-Packard officials are unveiling Superdome and NonStop systems powered by high-end Intel Xeon processors.

Until now, HP has standardized its Integrity line of high-end computers on Intel's Itanium line of processors, an architecture that essentially serves only HP and runs the tech vendor's HP-UX variant of the Unix operating system. At the HP Discover 2014 show Dec. 2, the company announced the Integrity Superdome X and NonStop X systems for Linux-based business-critical workloads. The servers are powered by Xeon E7 processors.

While the focus of the new systems may be on the hardware, it's not the processor that's driving the change, according to Jeff Kyle, director of product management for mission-critical systems at HP.

"It's all about the software," Kyle told eWEEK.

The Unix market continues to shrink as more businesses adopt Linux and Windows applications running on industry-standard x86-based systems. It's a trend that has been going on for years as Intel has increased the capabilities of its x86 Xeon processors, narrowing the performance gap between those chips and its Itanium family. It can be seen in the latest fiscal-year financial numbers from HP. Revenue from the company's Business Critical Systems group fell 29 percent in the latest quarter.

Analysts also are seeing a strong shift toward x86 servers. In the second quarter, IDC analysts said global revenue for x86 servers jumped 9.6 percent, while revenue for non-x86 systems fell 12.8 percent, the 12th quarter in a row of revenue decline for the segment.

Despite the declining numbers, HP can't let go of the Itanium-based Integrity systems running HP-UX. Major institutions, including financial services firms, telecommunications companies and other businesses that rely on high performance and availability, have invested billions of dollars over the years in building their infrastructures and don't intend to migrate to other architectures any time soon.

So while HP is bringing x86 chips and Linux to its Integrity servers, the company continues to follow a roadmap for the Itanium-based HP-UX systems until at least the end of the decade, and maybe longer.

"It's been declining," Kyle said of the Unix server market. "It's not a growing area. … But we have an installed base we need to cater to."

Intel has promised to continue to develop Itanium for at least one more generation. The chip maker in 2012 rolled out the Itanium 9500 "Poulson" series and is expected to launch "Kittson" within the next year or two. However, it's unclear whether Intel will support the architecture beyond that. The future of Itanium has been the source of debate since it was first launched in 2001 to underwhelming response, and it was highlighted most recently during a legal dispute between HP and Oracle when the software giant said it no longer would support the architecture in its software. HP successfully sued Oracle to continue the support.

However, Intel has continued to increase the capabilities in Xeon to enable the chip family to take on more robust workloads, while HP in 2011 announced Project Odyssey to enable Xeon-based systems to run mission-critical workloads. Superdome X and NonStop X are key parts of that effort.