Countdown starts for HP switch to Itanium

With Hewlett-Packard's final Alpha processor rolling off the production line, the clock is ticking for thousands of HP users to...

With Hewlett-Packard's final Alpha processor rolling off the production line, the clock is ticking for thousands of HP users to re-evaluate their server architectures and consider 64-bit processor alternatives such as Intel's Itanium.

HP wants users of its Unix-based hardware to move from Alpha or PA-Risc servers to Itanium servers running the HP-UX Unix operating system. But migrating from Alpha platforms is not straightforward because of the architectural complexity involved.

HP has about 450,000 Alphaserver users worldwide. There are 2,000 Alphaserver customers in the UK and 7,000 Vax/Alphaserver users.

Analysts have said that many Alpha users are content with their systems and that they can run mission-critical applications very reliably - sometimes for decades.

Users include large banks, telecoms firms and stock exchanges. High-profile Alphaserver users include Nasa, the Swiss Stock Exchange, BMW Williams (Formula One), Motorola and T-Mobile.

About 20% to 25% of HP's enterprise users are on Alpha-based platforms; 20% use Tandem Nonstop servers, which HP acquired when it bought Compaq in 2002; and about 60% use PA-Risc or Intel-based platforms, said Rakesh Kumar, senior vice-president and co-research director at analyst firm Meta Group.

HP is reducing the number of processors and operating systems it produces, trimming five server lines to three. From 2006, HP's high-end servers will be called Nonstop, the 64-bit server line will become Integrity and x86-based architectures will be rebranded as Proliant.

The last of the Alpha chips include the 1.3GHz EV7z, but HP will continue selling Alphaservers until 2006 and will support them until 2011.

Kumar said, "I am not convinced HP will pull the plug on PA-Risc. What happens if Itanium does not pick up? If demand for Itanium does not turn into money, HP will not develop it."

Martin Riley, HP's Alphaserver business manager, admitted the migration would take some time. "HP has staked its future on its servers being architected around Itanium, whether they are HP-UX or OpenVMS. Itanium has a 20-year lifespan. Customers will not move immediately [to Itanium], and most are planning their transitions in 2006."

As for operating systems, HP plans to fold Tru64 Unix, which it acquired from the Compaq merger, into HP-UX11i. It will make the latter more robust by adding recognised Tru64 features such as Trucluster and Advanced File System technologies.

By doing this, HP aims to focus on large users across all industries. Kumar said, "It is sensible to put everyone onto HP-UX, and there are no significant issues for customers migrating from Tru64 Unix. UX iterations have been pretty good with resilience built in."

HP has continued to back the popular OpenVMS operating system, releasing an evaluation version for its range of Integrity servers in January, based on 64-bit Itanium 2 processors. The move was welcomed by users.

Options for Alpha users

HP is hoping to woo users over to Itanium/HP-UX with its Alpha Retaintrust programme. This offers financial incentives, customer satisfaction guarantees, a trade-in programme, leasing options and migration tools.

Riley recommended different migration strategies for Alpha users running Tru64 and OpenVMS operating systems. He said Tru64 users should look to move to Itanium now unless they use clustering. They should then wait until 2005 or early 2006 when HP will add Tru64's advanced clustering capabilities to HP-UX.

OpenVMS users should also start moving now, as the transition costs are negligible. "It is a much easier transition and we have released an evaluation version of OpenVMS for Itanium on Integrity servers that does networking and clustering," he said.

"It will not offer the performance customers expect on Alpha right now, but it will be production-class and bulletproof. Most customers would understand that to ensure the integrity of VMS we have to do a lot of qualification work."

In November HP will release the official build of OpenVMS for Itanium, which will support up to eight Itanium processors.

Riley advised all users to work with HP to transition to Itanium gradually, but added, "Some customers will find they are best sticking with their Alphaserver now and it will make sense for them to transition later."

Kumar said, "It will not be a straightforward migration and HP will have to carry some of the cost with the customer if it wants to pull this off."

Companies have other options than Itanium. Sun has aggressively targeted HP's high-end customers with attractive deals for its HP Away programme and IBM's Power5 platform was rolled out earlier this year.

Companies are also looking at Linux on AMD's Opteron processor, a 32-bit chip with 64-bit extensions, which allows it to run 64-bit code. Another option is Linux on Intel's Nocona processor, a 32-bit Xeon chip that also has 64-bit extensions. Yet another option is Itanium running enterprise Microsoft operating systems such as Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition.

Chris Ingle, group consultant for analyst firm IDC's European Systems Group, said some large companies have already started the evaluation process. "We are starting to see customers do serious evaluations of the future of the [Alpha] platform and test some of HP's roadmap claims. You would not be surprised to hear of users looking at IBM as an alternative," he said.

Kumar said, "Alpha customers cannot really move to any other platform at the moment because of technical issues, but in two years' time there will be more options." One criticism of 64-bit extensions has been they do not execute 64-bit code as fast as true 64-bit processors such as Alpha.

Colin Butcher, board member of the HP User Group, said, "The real key is that most of these systems are in mission-critical environments, so you have to think about a lot more than just the hardware.

"It is the inter-relation between all the parts - fibre channel Sans and disaster recovery, for example. It rapidly gets complex.

"The key is retaining very high availability. Nobody is going to rush into anything without thorough testing," he added.

A question of timing

Despite HP's attempts to help shift Alpha and PA-Risc users to Itanium, there is a feeling in the industry that Itanium is not ready.

Butcher said, "My personal view is that Itanium is not there yet. You would not put it into operation today. It is probably 18 months to two years away from heavy-duty deployment."

Ingle said, "In performance terms it is really down to the application/operating system combination and how well it takes advantage of Itanium's architecture - and of course which generation of Itanium/cache size, etc."

Kumar said, "Our advice is to hold on as long as you can before moving. If you have newer applications, look at migrating to something such as Linux."

The cost of moving

Ingle said costs vary greatly, but added that firms should factor in technical evaluations, purchasing hardware and software, installation, testing, training, certification and ensuring that custom code runs properly.

HP offers a migration costing tool on its website which allows organisations to input a number of variables and work out the cost of moving from an Alpha-based infrastructure to Itanium. HP also offers finance deals and trade-ins to assist users that want to make the move.

Kumar advised Alpha users to cut the cost and complexity of migration now by reducing their number of Alpha-based applications, perhaps targeting non-critical applications and replacing them with off-the-shelf or bespoke Linux-based ones. He said this will reduce reliance on Alpha should the time come to migrate.

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