HP, Intel rethink processor upgrades in servers

HP, Intel have put a clamp on a motherboard as an error-free way to slot processors in sockets

Hewlett-Packard and Intel are rethinking processor upgrades in servers, coming up with a new chip-slotting technique that could reduce the chance of errors, and ultimately prevent system failure.

The Smart Socket technology in HP's new Gen8 servers revolves around the integration of a clamp on the motherboard to mechanically upgrade processors. Instead of manually placing a processor inside a socket, a clamp with the processor can be pushed down on the improvised socket for a safer chip upgrade.

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"You never drop the processor down, we mechanically control the whole thing," said Mark Potter, senior vice president and general manager for HP's Industry Standard Servers at the HP Global Partner conference being held in Las Vegas.

The motherboard has a clamp on it that has a processor framed inside, and is aligned with the socket so it can be slotted correctly. The clamp goes down sideways to insert the processor into a socket, after which it can be locked up tight.

Placing a processor errantly in a slot when upgrading could manifest in motherboard failure or flaky server performance, Potter said. Processors and motherboards have a large number of pins, and there are risks involved with manually slotting a processor. With Smart Socket technology, the alignment of pins reduces the risk of error.

System failure depends on how many pins are bent or how much they may be in contact. Static could also result in errant server performance, and it's more of a risk when manually upgrading a processor.

The technology is exclusive to motherboards on HP's Gen8 servers, which were introduced this week and will run on Intel's upcoming Xeon E5 processors based on the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture. The Smart Socket technology could ultimately become a standard in the industry, Potter said.

"It's just a better design and eliminates the number-one reason of system failures," Potter said.

The socket works with every socket-compatible processor, Potter said. The Gen8 servers will come with server chips from Advanced Micro Devices in the future, but Potter could not say whether the slotting technique would be included in the AMD servers.

Processors are one of the more important elements in the system, and any upgrade gone wrong could hurt the entire system, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

HP may be trying to eliminate one more headache in upgrading servers with Smart Socket technology, McCarron said. There was a time when processor upgrades were gaining steam, but the numbers are now dwindling; this could rekindle the trend of in-board upgrades, McCarron said.

An issue like static can kill systems by initiating a charge that could blow up circuitry, McCarron said. At worst, static could create some circuitry issues that could hurt system performance in the long run.

McCarron was surprised Smart Socket was introduced in servers, where upgrades are done by technology professionals. He said the technology would appeal more to PC users, where more errors could take place when manually upgrading processors.

HP may also be using Smart Socket to make field upgrades easy and also as a way to promote frequent server upgrades, McCarron said.

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