A Day at HP: SuperDome & HP-UX Live

Posted on October 7, 2009

In an effort to reach out to “new media”, HP had a tech-day event at the Cupertino Campus for a variety of invited bloggers. For some reason I was among them, because inviting a Sun zealot to an HP-UX love-fest is always a recipe for a good time. I wore a Sun Microsystems shirt, of course, just to keep things clear. Some of the other attendees included David Adams of OS News, Saurabh Dubey of ActiveWin, and Andy McCaskey of SDR News.

To make a long story short, the event celebrated the 10 Year Anniversary of SuperDome and the 25 Year Anniversary of HP-UX… both, they say, are still on top and going strong.

For my non-enterprise readers you may or may not have heard or know much about HP SuperDome, so here’s the scoop. SuperDome is HP’s “High End” for the “Integrity” line of servers, which can utilize either Intel Itanium or PA RISC, although the latter has gone the way of the dodo. While competitive offerings, even from Sun, have come and gone during the 10 Years of SuperDome I readily admit that it remains a viable platform due to the simplicity and modularity of its architecture of which HP should be, and is, very proud. So proud in fact that the model they showed off to us was a prototype unit that is still in use to day, simply upgraded to newer processors and used for performance testing and analysis.

SuperDome’s architecture is simple. Power at the bottom, cooling at the top with additional cooling elements in the middle. The core of the system is a powerful backplane which connects “cell boards” to each other and to IO expansion. Nothing fancy, just big ass cables from point A to B. Up to 2 SuperDome chassis (or “frames” depending on which audience you address) can be melded together by wiring the backplanes together which is why you see some single cabnet SuperDome’s and some that are 2 side-by-side joined at the hip, as it were. Each “Cell Board” contains memory slots and CPU sockets. At present they’re offering Quad-Core Itanium, and each chassis supports up to 8 Cell Boards, so you get up to 32 sockets (128 cores) per chassis, but as I said you can cable 2 chassis together increasing the total “single” system capability to 64 sockets.

One of my big nit picks was that when HP SuperDome first arrived it was direct competition to the Sun “StarFire” Enterprise 10,000 (“E10K”) which had double the capabilities of the HP! Hardly competition. But time has proven HP out. While the E10K was an excellent HPC Super Computer (in its day) for very large SMP requirements, the SuperDome instead focused on being carved up using partitioning. This is a two fold strategy, first using “nPars” to “hard partition” cell boards into individual systems and then to use the HP-UX vPars to “virtualize” instances of HP-UX within those nPars. The result was a platform that was truly about flexibility and centralization as opposed to being the biggest and baddest gun in the west. Lets not forget that both E10K and E15K both had, I think, the best partitioning technology available, but the markets they appealed to were very different. When you combine SuperDome’s simplistic architecture along with its marketing focus of consolidation and flexibility you get a solution with far more staying power.

Of course, the trouble in my mind is that HP-UX is a steaming pile of crap…. but they assure me this is not so. As though little had changed in the last 10 years, HP still seem to think of the real competition being IBM mainframe installations. They hardly acknowledge Sun as competition because there is so little focus by Sun in that competitive space. So the OS war they are fighting isn’t HP-UX vs AIX vs Solaris, but rather HP-UX vs IBM z/OS.

HP-UX 11i v3 Update 5 (and you thought Solaris naming was stupid!) just released. The roadmap current charts out to HP-UX 11i v5… so if your wanting for HP-UX 12 you’ll wait longer than for Solaris 11.

I had several conversations with important persons of interest regarding Solaris and the jist was generally the same as the market at large. They find DTrace to be annoying, because while people “need it” they don’t use it. Furthermore they claim that DTrace like facilities have existed within the HP-UX kernel for years but they never considered it of interest to end customers and therefore appeared to come late the the party. With techonologies like SMF they agreed that the end-user excitement wasn’t as great as they expected, and hands down everyone saw ZFS as the really big ticket win in Solaris.

But…. HP-UX vs Solaris is little more than a side-note. In the enterprise space in which they see themselves as relevant OS wars don’t exist. CFO’s, they think, make the decisions and its not about whether Solaris is better than HP-UX or AIX but whether the hardware provides value and the supplier offers excellent service… the OS is, in that case, simply a glue layer. At least, that’s the vibe they put off.

And whats more, I consider Itanium to have run its course… but HP are quite confident that its still the best processor available and are even minorly annoyed at the idea of putting Intel Xeon processors in the SuperDome cell boards. In short, not happening.

The event was fun, I was glad to attend. It was a throwback to the world pre-X86, when servers were big and RAS was the standard. I congratulate HP on producing a fantastic product with so much staying power and wish them continued success in the future.