Four projects that could make or break HP Enterprise

HP is counting on these notable initiatives on the business and enterprise to move the needle for customers

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HP cleaving itself in two -- into enterprise- and consumer-oriented outfits -- has already sparked discussion of how HP's problems are bigger than its overall structure.

The enterprise side stands the better chance of thriving; HP couldn't even find buyers for its commodity PC and consumer hardware operations. But in order to thrive the new business-centric division HP Enterprise will need to make an offer that stands out as far from the pack as possible.

Here are four projects that could fit the bill. The bigger question, though, is whether HP can deliver on even a fraction of the promise any of them represent.

1. Helion/OpenStack and Eucalyptus

HP's work with OpenStack -- as Helion -- is meant to complement the surprisingly strong attention the company's received for its private cloud projects. Ditto HP's purchase of Eucalyptus, a complementary project for creating AWS-compatible private clouds. It would be great if HP could combine the two in a way that provides an appealing alternative to the scattershot power of generic OpenStack or a third party's commercially supported OpenStack.

The lowdown: Helion and Eucalyptus are highly practical and focused projects, but how much business HP can drum up with either of them is still an open question. After all, the market for OpenStack is confined to a relatively small, self-selecting list of players.

2. Networking

HP's networking business is still a major point of pride for the company, if only for being able to consistently maintain the second-largest market share after the Cisco juggernaut. But back in 2011, Forrester analyst Andre Kindness felt HP could cut its networking division loose entirely and invest the proceedings in developing a virtual networking solution to compete with the likes of Juniper, Brocade, and Avaya.

HP hasn't done anything nearly that radical since then. But to its credit, it has taken SDN more seriously, banking heavily on SDN-enabled hardware and gradually ratcheting up its involvement in the OpenDaylight project, an industry-wide SDN initiative.

The lowdown: Barring its involvement in OpenDaylight -- which may be too little, too late -- too many of HP's SDN moves have been untransformative or trivial. For example, there's the SDN App Store, a system for developers to create applications for HP's OpenFlow-based SDN hardware and monetize the results. As Gartner analysts pointed out, it's still too limited to reach the market it needs to find, and it isn't even leveraging any of HP's investment in OpenDaylight to begin with. HP can't afford to hedge its bets with SDN anymore; the company should pick a strategy and follow through on it.

3. Moonshot

HP's evocatively named, energy-sipping, high-density server configuration finally emerged last year, and much of the project is noteworthy. It isn't merely the use of low-power processors (including ARM) that made it interesting, nor is it the design that featured swappable "cartridges" designed for specific data center workloads, some of which include dedicated coprocessors. Moonshot also counts as one of the many ways HP has pushed back against the rise of commodity whitebox data center hardware, along with its Foxconn joint project in the same vein.

Unfortunately, clever design alone hasn't been enough to make Moonshot go to, well, the moon -- it hasn't achieved the kind of broad growth HP wanted in the year and change since it was rolled out. So far, it's mainly found a niche in Web caching and remote-desktop applications.

The lowdown: Like so many other aspects of IT, Moonshot is a great idea waiting for a market to happen. HP will need a far more concrete plan to get people to pick up on it.

4. The Machine

Every company of HP's size needs at least one big, crazy, ambitious project, even if it looks good only on paper for the sake of shareholders and the nontech press. With IBM, it's been Watson (as a service, no less). In HP's case, it's The Machine, a purported way to leverage still-in-the-lab technologies, from memristors to silicon photonics, to produce a next-generation variety of computer system that runs orders of magnitude faster.

The lowdown: Don't hold your breath. The project isn't total vapor or science fiction, but it's close enough at this point to not be taken seriously as a future direction for the company until there's a deliverable -- which could be years off, if ever.

It's laudable that a company that built its reputation as an engineering marvel is devoting resources to such a project. But one glance at the rest of HP's current business doesn't show it putting work where it pays off. For example, it still lacks a real mobile strategy, short of a token investment in tablet devices. That alone casts fair doubts on how well it could bring to market even something this potentially golden.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.