Hewlett-Packard has announced a multi-year effort to port its Nonstop server systems, used by banks, telcos, and other businesses that need maximum reliability, from Intel's Itanium architecture to x86.
It's HP's latest and perhaps biggest move to reduce its reliance on Intel's Itanium chip, which never gained wide adoption and appears to be nearing the end of its life. HP has already developed Xeon blades for its Integrity Superdome system, and it's now shifting its attention to Nonstop.
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"We've committed to port the whole Nonstop environment -- applications, middleware and tools -- to x86," Randy Meyer, vice president and general manager for HP's Integrity server business, said in an interview last week.
HP says the x86 version will be a "parallel offering," not that it's walking away from Itanium. It recently started selling Nonstop customers the newest Itanium 9500 processors, known as Poulson, and will follow with the Kittson Itanium chips after that, Meyer said.
But Intel said earlier this year it was scaling back its Kittson plans -- they'll no longer be made on a newer, 22-nanometer manufacturing process -- and neither Intel or HP has disclosed any subsequent chips on the Itanium roadmap.
As with its Superdome system, HP's pitch to Nonstop customers is that they can stick with Itanium if they wish to, at least for the next several years, but if they want to transition to Intel's Xeon processors they can do that as well.
When the port is complete, the Nonstop platform will use "100 percent standard hardware components," including processors, storage and I/O, Meyer said. That will include replacing the proprietary ServerNet interconnect with InfiniBand.
"Infiniband is at 40 gigabytes today, 100 gigabytes is coming. ServerNet was not going to move up to that speed without some major investments," Meyer said.
HP isn't saying when the port will be complete but Meyer said the work will take "several years." HP has early versions of the Nonstop OS and SQL database running on Xeon in its labs, he said, but the project is still at an "alpha, or pre-alpha stage."
"Is it anywhere near to a shipping product? No," he said.
The Nonstop platform has been around for more than three decades. Its fault tolerance comes partly from its parallel architecture, where each instance of the OS resides on its own processor, so if one processor fails the system can keep operating continually.
That basic design will be carried over to the x86 port, Meyer said. "The architecture is timeless. It's not tied to any one chip technology or storage technology," he said.
But it remains to be seen if HP can replicate the platform's reliability using standard hardware -- and whether customers will stick with it during the transition. Sales in HP's Business Critical Systems group have been declining. They fell 26 percent last quarter, partly because of the uncertainty around Itanium, and partly because cheaper x86 hardware is becoming more reliable and squeezing out higher-end systems.