New Intel/HP Products Spell Doom for PA-RISC

So much for the PA-RISC.

After its long run as the company’s dominant server processor architecture, Hewlett-Packard said it products based on “Reduced Instruction Set Computer” probably won’t last another decade.

Brian Cox, Product Line Manager of HP Business Critical Systems Group group said life for HP’s RISC chips is fine for the next few years but not for the next 20.

“At some point you have to transition ahead,” Cox said. “We realized our customers would want to upgrade, so we designed the new cells to accept the memory from the old cells.”

At the Intel Developer Forum, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based computer and printer maker is expected to announce a partnership with Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip making giant Intel that will extend the lifespan of PA-RISC machines by turning them into Itanium-based ones.

The RISC chip was developed at IBM in the early ’70s and needed fewer operating instructions (hence the name), was faster than CISC processors (at least when executing simple instructions), and was even cheaper to manufacture. Other RISC chips include Motorola PowerPC chip, used in Apple Computer’s PowerPC Macs, DEC’s Alpha (now owned by HP) and Sun Microsystems’ SPARC.

There is still considerable controversy among experts about the ultimate value of RISC architectures. Its proponents argue that RISC machines are both cheaper and faster, and are therefore the machines of the future. Skeptics note that by making the hardware simpler, RISC architectures put a greater burden on the software. They argue that this is not worth the trouble because conventional microprocessors are becoming increasingly fast and cheap anyway.

The HP migration plan includes the company’s new sx1000 processor chipset (code-named Pinnacles) and its mx2 dual processor module (code-named Hondo) using Itanium 2 processors. The idea is to allow PA-RISC customers to transition to Itanium-based systems through a simple cell board swap and daughterboard addition.

The seeds of Itanium partnership between HP and Intel started in the 1990s after HP Labs spent years developing its EPIC computing environment.

“We needed a manufacturing partner,” said Cox. “We reap the benefits because we can exploit our inside knowledge of this architecture.”

HP is also using Intel and its Xeon processors for its new HP ProLiant DL740 and the second-generation HP ProLiant DL760 servers.

HP is toting the sx1000 as a way to get high-speed interaction between processors, input/output, and memory and support both the upcoming Intel Itanium 2 and HP PA-8800 processors. The sx1000 based version of HP’s high-end Superdome is expected to ship with the Madison processor in mid-2003. Mid-range servers in the rp7400 and rp8400 classes will ship in the second half of 2003. The HP mx2 dual processor module is designed to combine two future Itanium 2 processors and a 32 MB L4 cache onto a single daughter card module that is pin-compatible with existing Madison Itanium 2 processor sockets. The module is expected to allow scalability up to 128 processors and should debut in Itanium 2-based HP servers — from entry-level to high-end — in the first half of 2004.

The debuts of the enhanced servers are being timed with the release of Intel’s third-generation Itanium chips. The company said it is on track to release three separate 1.5 GHz Madison chips, built with the 130nm process with L3 cache sizes of 3-, 4-, and 6MB. Intel said it is making its entire line of Itanium 2 processors pin compatible including its 90nm process Montecito.

Because each processor has a hard partition, HP says its future Itanium server systems will actually be able to run HP-UX, Linux, Microsoft Windows 2003 and Open VMS (due in 2004) all on the same machine.

During the keynote address on Thursday Intel’s Scott Stallard and Michael Fister will be demonstrating an Itanium 2-based HP Superdome server with an sx1000 chipset running HP-UX, Windows and Linux operating systems simultaneously.