Earlier this week at its Discover customer event, HP announced a significant set of improvements to its already successful c-Class BladeSystem product line, which, despite continuing competitive pressure from IBM and the entry of Cisco into the market three years ago, still commands approximately 50% of the blade market. The significant components of this announcement fall into four major functional buckets – improved hardware, simplified and expanded storage features, new interconnects and I/O options, and serviceability enhancements. Among the highlights are:

  • Direct connection of HP 3PAR storage – One of the major drawbacks for block-mode storage with blades has always been the cost of the SAN to connect it to the blade enclosure. With the ability to connect an HP 3PAR storage array directly to the c-Class enclosure without any SAN components, HP has reduced both the cost and the complexity of storage for a wide class of applications that have storage requirements within the scope of a single storage array.
  • New blades – With this announcement, HP fills in the gaps in their blade portfolio, announcing a new Intel Xeon EN based BL-420 for entry requirements, an upgrade to the BL-465 to support the latest AMD 16-core Interlagos CPU, and the BL-660, a new single-width Xeon E5 based 4-socket blade. In addition, HP has expanded the capacity of the sidecar storage blade to 1.5 TB, enabling an 8-server and 12 TB + chassis configuration.
  • New I/O and interconnect – A raft of incremental improvements, including 40 Gb signal path connectivity from the blade through an improved midplane (which can be retrofitted to older enclosures, although few will bother), which will enable both higher bandwidth Ethernet in the future as well as the new FDR Inifinband option. Also thrown into the mix is a new line of HP switches allowing multiple switches to be virtualized as a single switch, and a 16 Gb FC module. The Flex-10 Virtual Connect module has also been upgraded to a combined bandwidth of 600 Gb and added uplink ports.
  • Ease of use and serviceability – HP has integrated the Gen8 server improvements in provisioning and automated maintenance operations, including firmware updates. In addition, it has added location-aware capabilities (requires HP rack and other unspecified software to take advantage of this feature) and improvements in the local Onboard Administrator.

What does this mean?

Faced with significant competitive pressures from both Cisco and a resurgent IBM, whose new PureSystems systems effectively close the gap between their legacy H and HS BladeCenter products and HP’s c-Class, HP understands it is in a strongly competitive market and is making incremental improvements to retain its leadership position. These new announcements by HP go a long way towards meeting the improvements introduced by IBM and offer some improvement versus Cisco’s current product line. HP has stated that these improvements will extend the life of these systems to at least 2016, a full 10 years after the introduction of the original c-Class system. My assessment is that they are being conservative and that the provision of 40 Gb signal paths will potentially extend the lifespan of the product even further if HP desires, although the introduction of the next wave of server CPUs after the future “Ivy Bridge” server CPU wave, sometime after 2014, may be the inflection point at which HP does finally introduce a new system architecture (this is pure speculation on my part, no implication of HP endorsement here).

For existing HP customers, the new enhancements are unmixed good news, offering substantially higher performance and relaxation of looming bottlenecks, along with incorporation of the undeniably attractive Gen8 usability features. For competitors it’s a signal that HP is awake and paying attention to both customers and competitive threats.