On Monday, February 13, HP announced its next turn of the great wheel for servers with the announcement of its Gen8 family of servers. Interestingly, since the announcement was ahead of Intel’s official announcement of the supporting E5 server CPUs, HP had absolutely nothing to say about the CPUs or performance of these systems. But even if the CPU information had been available, it would have been a sideshow to the main thrust of the Gen8 launch — improving the overall TCO (particularly Opex) of servers by making them more automated, more manageable, and easier to remediate when there is a problem, along with enhancements to storage, data center infrastructure management (DCIM) capabilities, and a fundamental change in the way that services and support are delivered.

With a little more granularity, the major components of the Gen8 server technology announcement included:

  • Onboard Automation – A suite of capabilities and tools that provide improved agentless local intelligence to allow quicker and lower labor cost provisioning, including faster boot cycles, “one click” firmware updates of single or multiple systems, intelligent and greatly improved boot-time diagnostics, and run-time diagnostics. This is apparently implemented by more powerful onboard management controllers and pre-provisioning a lot of software on built-in flash memory, which is used by the onboard controller. HP claims that the combination of these tools can increase operator productivity by up to 65%. One of the eye-catching features is an iPhone app that will scan a code printed on the server and go back through the Insight Management Environment stack and trigger the appropriate script to provision the server.[i]Possibly a bit of a gimmick, but a cool-looking one.
  • Smart Storage – More of a roadmap than a single product, Smart Storage starts with the introduction of Advanced Data Mirroring, a triple-redundant striping technology that provides a claimed 1000X (I have no way to verify this number, but logic says that three stripes will be much more reliable than two by a large margin if you replace the failed disk promptly). Also announced were intelligent flash caching for improved performance and a combination of faster memory and PCIe 3 I/O.[ii]
  • Location-Aware Infrastructure Technology – Introduced under the rather opaque term “3D Sea of Sensors” (the sensors are not particularly 3D and there is no obvious “sea”), HP has introduced some extremely powerful infrastructure management capabilities that provide immediate benefit and can also work as part of a comprehensive DCIM solution. The constituent parts included location-aware racks and servers, intelligent PDUs, and rack-level power capping. Combined with other unspecified tools, these are the core capabilities to implement comprehensive intelligent power and cooling management, visualization, and workload-aware scheduling. Note that in order to fully utilize these capabilities you have to buy into a complete HP infrastructure stack of racks, and PDUs and their associated software, as well as the servers themselves. Looking into my crystal ball, it’s pretty obvious that HP has serious designs on the DCIM space, and current vendors with whom it is in “co-opetition” should be looking over their shoulders.
  • Insight Online – This was in many ways the most significant piece part of the announcement, comprising as it does a complete online portal for the delivery (“cloud-based” of course as is everything from Kleenex[iii]to tractor parts) of diagnostic, maintenance, and other services to HP customers. These services include reactive diagnostic and remediation as well as an escalating menu of proactive services and additional operational assistance, and the portal serves as a central integrator of all information about a given asset, including lifecycle and contractual details as well as technical information. HP makes claims that this facility will reduce time to problem resolution by up to two-thirds and improve first-call resolution rates. Obviously it is impossible to judge the real operational quality of a complex service like this from a presentation and staged demo, but on the face of it, HP has really moved the needle in terms of service delivery with this capability.

My net take is that this is a significantly more important announcement than the last several from HP or any other mainstream server vendor, and it sets a high bar for competitors. In the coming month or two we can expect other competitive announcements, and I think that some pieces of hardware, such as PCIe-3, improved memory reliability and performance, and increased integration of flash memory into storage, will be replicated wholly or in part by competitors. What will probably set HP apart is the cumulative impact of their intelligent provisioning, diagnostics and update capabilities, along with the potentials of their service portal and associated services.

For HP customers this is unmitigated good news. For competitors it is a challenge, and we anxiously await their responses. Any HP customers are welcome to weigh in on their impressions of these announcements.

It appears that you will need to involve the Insight Control Software to implement the “one touch” provisioning as well as features like the smartphone app.

[ii]To be fair, smart caching of disk content on integrated flash is not new, but it is new to HP. PCIe-3 is not likely to be unique for long. I expect everyone in the coming cycle of server announcements will have this on their next-gen servers.

[iii]Kleenex is a registered trademark of someone.