Today HP announced a new set of technology programs and future products designed to move x86 server technology for both Windows and Linux more fully into the realm of truly mission-critical computing. My interpretation of these moves is that it is both a combined defensive and pro-active offensive action on HP’s part that will both protect them as their Itanium/HP-UX portfolio slowly declines as well as offer attractive and potentially unique options for both current and future customers who want to deploy increasingly critical services on x86 platforms.

What’s Coming?

Bearing in mind that the earliest of these elements will not be in place until approximately mid-2012, the key elements that HP is currently disclosing are:

ServiceGuard for Linux – This is a big win for Linux users on HP, and removes a major operational and architectural hurdle for HP-UX migrations. ServiceGuard is a highly regarded clustering and HA facility on HP-UX, and includes many features for local and geographically distributed HA. The lack of ServiceGuard is often cited as a risk in HP-UX migrations. The availability of ServiceGuard by mid-2012 will remove yet another barrier to smooth migration from HP-UX to Linux, and will help make sure that HP retains the business as it migrates from HP-UX.

Analysis engine for x86 – Analysis engine is internal software that provides system diagnostics, predictive failure analysis and self-repair on HP-UX systems. With an uncommitted delivery date, HP will port this to selected x86 servers. My guess is that since the analysis engine probably requires some level of hardware assist, the analysis engine will be paired with the next item on the list…

Superdome 2 x86 blades – HP will develop x86 blades for the Superdome 2 enclosure, with a probably availability date of “around two years.” By my reckoning, that seems to align them with what I expect will be the “Ivy Bridge” MP server CPUs, which I would expect to see in late 2013 or early 2014. These are being described as x86 blades that can take full advantage of the mission-critical features of the Superdome 2 architecture and capable of running as nPars (electrically isolated partitions). While uniqueness for a product two years in the future is never guaranteed, none of the other incumbents (Oracle or IBM) has the incentive to implement fully capable partitioning on their x86 product line because it would potentially collide with their RISC/UNIX franchise which does not have to cope with the kind of disruption that HP is seeing.

Scalable x86 blades for BladeSystem – An x86 equivalent of their current scalable BladeLink Itanium blades for the BladeSystem, which will also include nPars as do the current Itanium scalable blades. These will probably be two-sockets per blade, scalable via BladeLink to up to an 8-socket system. Like the Superdome 2 blades, this has an approximate two-year window, and again will probably intersect the Ivy Bridge insertion timeline. The big unknown here is whether these will run on the current c-Class BladeSystem or on a new future version,

What About Itanium?

Regardless of future erosion of their Itanium/HP-UX franchise, which I believe is inevitable and, with the early visibility that HP is providing into their future technology, HP obviously also believes will happen, HP will continue enhancing and selling HP-UX on Itanium for as long as it is viable. Next year’s focus will be on introducing the new Poulson CPU, which should offer major improvements in performance and incremental gains in reliability to HP-UX loyalists, and on incremental improvements to HP-UX to defend its franchise where Oracle is not an issue.

Ramifications for HP-UX Users

With this early announcement, which really serves as a strategic look at future intentions as much as a product announcement, HP is serving notice to its customers that it is more than willing to accommodate migrations to Linux or Windows, and is hoping that this vision will reassure HP-UX customers who are not wed to Oracle, as well as secure them more than a fair share of the migrations that do happen.

All in all, my take is that this a smart move on HP’s part (both the substance and the early disclosure) and a positive for both current HP-UX customers as well as anyone looking for future high-end Linux or Windows platforms.

The Elephant in the Room – HP-UX on x86

HP is remaining agile, that is to say uncommitted, on the subject of HP-UX on x86. The decision is not a technical one, but rather a marketing and investment decision. They must balance potential faster Itanium cannibalization, ISV support and the possibility that Oracle may still find a way not to support them on an x86 platform against the potential of a standard architecture platform for an arguably popular OS. My guess is that there is no unanimity of internal opinion at HP, and the new x86 blades for Superdome 2 will at least give them a platform upon which to run it if they change their minds and undertake what I am guessing is at least a two year implementation project.

We’d love to hear from current and potential HP customers about your reaction to this move.