HP previews ProLiant refresh as users eye Cisco UCS

HP touts new management capabilities for the forthcoming Generation 8 of its ProLiant servers, but some users say they are already looking elsewhere.

Hewlett-Packard says Generation 8 of its ProLiant server line will ship in March with enhanced management features, but the refresh may arrive too late for some users.

Kent Altena, a technical engineer with an insurance company based in the Midwest, said support problems have prompted him to begin evaluating Cisco Systems Inc.’s Unified Computing System (UCS) as an alternative to HP.

Altena said it recently took 60 hours to get a replacement part in an HP BladeSystem chassis.

 “You buy 6-Hour Call-to-Repair and they don’t live up to that,” he said. “You buy a mission-critical level of support, and they don’t fulfill it, especially on critical blade chassis or enclosure parts, like Ethernet passthrough devices — stuff that affects every blade.”

Altena said he’s evaluating Cisco because “If you’re looking for someone else that has mind share or innovation in the marketplace, they’re probably it.”

The October 2011 flooding in Thailand affected the sale of disk drives worldwide and caused delays for an enterprise architect at a large financial institution in Chicago. “We had major issues with parts. Some [HP] servers could not be delivered,” he said.

This user is also evaluating Cisco UCS in the hope of finding simpler networking and server management, particularly when it comes to firmware.

“Firmware doesn’t seem as standard as you would think,” he said. “If you put a newer version of a blade in a [BladeSystem] chassis, then you have new firmware in the server that doesn’t match the chassis, doesn’t match the firmware in the switch in the back of the chassis, and you have to have downtime that could affect all the other production servers.”

In addition to parts delivery and supply chain problems, HP users have felt shakeups in their relationships with HP representatives.

“Support with HP can be challenging from the standpoint of finding the right person,” said Daniel Shipley, IT architect for Supplies Network, based in St. Charles, Mo. “HP has reorganized a number of times recently, confusing their customers. I have gone through something like five different account and sales reps in the past year-plus.”

Shipley also evaluated UCS before going with HP a few years ago and said he chose a combination of HP ProLiant servers and XSigo’s networking fabric because he wanted to avoid being locked in to one vendor for both compute and networking.

A deathmatch in a slow-growing enterprise server market
In general, market share for Cisco UCS is small but growing fast. The platform was only introduced in 2009 and has captured just less than 10% of the worldwide blade server market so far, according to IDC, an IT analysis firm based in Framingham, Mass.

However, according to TechTarget’s Virtualization Decisions 2011 Purchasing Intentions Survey, Cisco trailed Dell and HP as server virtualization users’ hardware platform of choice last year, with 5.76% of respondents saying they used it. But close to 20% of respondents said UCS would be their platform of choice in 2012.

HP, meanwhile, had a tumultuous year in 2011, with multiple shakeups in upper management and in consumer-focused product lines that contributed to falling stock prices and slowing sales. Enterprise servers generally stayed out of the headlines, but the Industry Standard Server group to which ProLiant belongs posted a year-over-year decline in the fourth quarter of 4%.

Generally, analysts say, this year is going to be brutally competitive between server hardware vendors, all of whom also face increased pressure from new paradigms like server virtualization and cloud computing in addition to competing with each other.

“The market’s not going to grow too fast, and we’re out of the refresh cycle that we had after the economic downturn where there was a lot of pent-up demand,” said Jed Scaramella, an analyst with IDC. “Server sales are going to be harder to come by.”

HP looks to fire back with ProLiant Generation 8
HP’s preview of its new ProLiant server line emphasizes management at scale, with the addition of new temperature and location sensors and a new server architecture to ease mundane management burdens on time-taxed system administrators. However, it’s short on specifics about processor types and amount of RAM supported per server; HP won’t disclose these numbers until the new models ship.

“It will be important to see how much RAM is supported when the models are announced,” said Supplies Network’s Shipley. “That is a key consideration. For the new servers to be relevant, they should support [greater than] 512 gigabytes and hopefully closer to 1 terabyte of RAM.”

Meanwhile, HP added power sensors to the PCI cards in ProLiants in addition to existing sensors on the motherboard to give users a better picture of overall power consumption inside each unit. A new feature called Location Discovery tracks where servers are physically located within a data center for quicker troubleshooting.

Many of the features found in new thermal discovery and power discovery sensors will require separate software called Insight Control for the user interface to provide visualization and perform actions. There are also some new power management features that are paid add-ons such as intelligent racks, intelligent PDUs and proactive services.

Another new feature of the ProLiant server architecture is Intelligent Provisioning, which eliminates the need to juggle SmartStart CDs and DVD previously used to deploy servers. Instead, setup and configuration information will be embedded into a separate processor chip on the server.

Similarly, firmware upgrades can now be performed over the network through a feature called Smart Update, rather than slinging DVDs around at each machine.

“I really like the new method of patching,” said Shipley. “The driver updates were kind of painful.”

HP is also introducing Integrated Lights Out (iLO) version 4, now renamed iLO Management Engine. This software tracks changes, such as the addition of new memory or a new disk drive, and reduces the time to maintain the server and keep it optimized without looking through a bunch of other files.

While a base version of iLO is bundled with the ProLiants, it takes an additional fee to get more advanced remote access functionality, like keyboard-video-mouse (KVM) support, according to Shipley. “iLO only offers remote power on/off and other basic functions,” he said. “iLO is not very functional for a remote lights-out datacenter environment.”

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for SearchServerVirtualization.com and SearchDataCenter.com. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com.

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