Hewlett-Packard recently introduced the last upgrade for its PA-RISC proprietary processor, effectively ending the life of a technology that had been driving the vendor's high-end servers since the mid-1980s.
Late last month, HP introduced the final processor speed increase for its 9000 series servers, said Randy Meyer, director of strategy, technology and education at HP. The new PA-8900 processor, which provides a 16 percent performance boost over previous technology, completes HP's PA-RISC road map.
The new processors are shipping in HP 9000 servers priced between $4,300 and $113,600 and are available now. HP will support servers running PA-RISC chips until 2013 but will stop selling the latest HP 9000 systems in 2008, said Brian Cox, director of server marketing at the Palo Alto, Calif.-based vendor.
HP was the first hardware vendor to bring out a RISC chip, releasing it in 1986, and PA-RISC—which powered HP Unix-based servers for high-end application processing—served the vendor well for years, Cox said.
However, HP saw a need for processors that went beyond the performance and reliability of RISC chips and so entered an alliance with Intel in 1994 to develop new processor technology, which later became known as Itanium.
"The capabilities [of RISC] were not keeping up as software itself was getting more sophisticated," Cox said. "We realized after a number of years [that] we'd have to come up with new ideas to keep up with more demanding applications. This led us to the Itanium architecture."
Some in the industry think this is where HP made a misstep. By pledging to work in tandem with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel for its high-end server chip development, HP was depending largely on the success of Itanium, with no backup plan in case that technology failed.
While Itanium by no stretch of the imagination has been a failure, it did not live up to its hype, either. The technology took application vendors by surprise when they discovered their software had to be rearchitected to take advantage of Itanium's 64-bit features.
In the meantime, Advanced Micro Devices introduced 64-bit x86 technology, a move Intel eventually countered by introducing Xeon chips that allowed 32-bit applications to run in 64-bit mode.
Some solution providers, however, said the damage to HP's investment in Itanium, and thus its high-end server strategy, already was done.
"HP really missed the boat," said Bill Nemesi, a brand executive at Mainline Information Systems, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based solution provider. "HP and Intel committed to Itanium years ago when they thought people would move to Itanium sooner than they did. HP's commitment to Itanium has not paid off, not to the level that Intel or HP would like it to be. The [application adoption] is not anywhere close to what they would like to see."
According to Meyer, however, about 90 percent of HP's tier-one ISVs have applications that run on Itanium. Servers running on the processor now represent about 25 percent to 27 percent of HP's enterprise systems revenue, he said.
"We're seeing ISVs adopt it at a rapid rate, and the performance curve has been tremendous underneath that," Meyer said.
Cox also pointed out that the industry in general is moving toward standards-based processors from Intel and AMD and away from proprietary chip development from hardware vendors. Among the top server vendors, only IBM with its Power5 processors, and Sun Microsystems with its SPARC processors, still build their own chips.
Still, while some believe IBM is beginning to emerge as the leader in the high-end server space, HP is still holding strong in the Unix server market, the original sweet spot for PA-RISC.
According to the latest figures from research firm IDC, HP beat IBM and Sun in worldwide Unix server market share for the first quarter of 2005. HP had 29.5 percent of the market, with Sun following with 27.3 percent. IBM, which led the previous quarter with 35.2 percent, came in third, capturing 25.5 percent of the worldwide Unix market for the first quarter of 2005.