HP, Compaq fend off Unix server foes IBM, Sun

Despite recent hype over a two-horse race between Sun Microsystems and IBM for the high-end Unix server market crown, industry heavyweights Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Compaq Computer each plan to aggressively pursue the title themselves, according to HP and Compaq officials.

Sun's Starcat server and IBM's Regatta server, both high-end Unix systems based on proprietary RISC hardware, each debuted within the last two weeks. IBM's threat to win market share from Unix leader Sun, coupled with Sun's counter-threat to draw IBM mainframe customers over to Sun's Unix platform, had many experts regarding HP and Compaq as fading contenders in the Unix market. Earlier commitments by both HP and Compaq to eventually offer only Intel-based Unix systems further fueled this perception.

However, Compaq and HP believe they are nowhere near being out of the Unix race.

"We've been growing [Unix] market share over the last 9 quarters," said Don Jenkins, the vice president of marketing for high-performance systems at Compaq. Jenkins said that although Compaq is only an eight percent shareholder of the Unix market, the company will relentlessly combat Sun and IBM with servers based on next-generation RISC-based Alpha chips like the EV-7, expected in late 2002 or early 2003.

HP, which once had a singular hold on the Unix server market before relinquishing it to Sun in the late 1990s, reported 37 percent growth for its Unix business from the second quarter of 2000 to the same time this year, according to Mark Hudson, the worldwide marketing manager for HP's business systems and technology.

HP's Superdome Unix server recently got a 70 percent increase in performance with the introduction of HP's series 8700 RISC processors, Hudson said. Over the course of the product line's lifecycle, Superdome is expected to experience performance increases of four times its current capabilities, Hudson said.

Decisions made earlier this year by both HP and Compaq to begin porting their various Unix operating systems over to Intel's fledgling Itanium chip platform may have moved some industry observers to discount HP and Compaq as serious Unix players, according to Richard Partridge, a senior research analyst at D. H. Brown, an industry think tank based in Port Chester, N.Y.

Itanium is Intel's first commercial attempt at 64-bit computing, and early Unix commitments to the platform from HP and Compaq were greeted with skepticism.

"People had their fun kicking Itanium while it was down, because of the hype and then the delays. But I believe that Itanium, when you get to McKinley and Madison, will be a serious contender on the high end," said Partridge.

A better-performing, next-generation Itanium chip currently code-named McKinley will arrive from Intel in mid 2002, followed in 2003 by two more high-end Itanium chips code-named Madison and Deerfield, according to Intel.

Compaq will battle it out with Sun and IBM for Unix market share using EV-7 Alpha-based servers until the 2003 timeframe, when Compaq will transition its OSes to the high-end Itanium chips, said Jenkins. Compaq will support its legacy Unix customers indefinitely, and OS transitions to Itanium should be seamless, but around 2003 the Alpha road map will morph to Itanium, as EV-8 chips will be designed by an Intel team, Jenkins said.

HP will keep its eye on the Unix prize with two more generations of RISC chips, introducing series 8800 in the 2003 timeframe, and series 8900, HP's last RISC chip, 12 to 18 months later, said Hudson. Sometime before 2004, Hudson expects HP's transition to Itanium chips to reach "critical mass," as the company begins to unify its operating systems, which already run on Itanium, onto the Intel platform.

Timing has not been good for HP's and Compaq's high-end Unix messages, according to D. H. Brown's Partridge. HP and Compaq are mid-stream in a proposed merger of the two companies, which Partridge said it has been a distraction away from the high-end computing platforms owned by both HP and Compaq. The economy has also played a role.

"Fates have aligned so that I don't perceive that HP and Compaq are getting the proper attention paid to them on anything other than the consumer desktop," Partridge said, in reference to news events that include the potential HP/Compaq merger and the slowing economy.

"HP perhaps unfairly is being tangled up in questions like 'what does this merger mean for the consumer, for the desktop?' And mostly when [people] say the word Compaq, they think of Intel-based client servers," he said.

"At the same time, Sun and IBM up the ante in the high-end [Unix server market], the spotlight is on Sun and IBM, and if HP and Compaq are being perceived as being tangled in the desktop, then they are not being given credit for the fact they are still a participant in the Unix server environment," he said.

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