Hardware Today — Putting Stock in HP Servers

Monday Jun 21st 2004 by Ben Freeman
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We follow up last week's HP Server Snapshot with a look at Townsend Analytics, a long-standing ProLiant customer that is bullish on the vendor's Opteron upgrade path.

Last week's Hardware Today Server Snapshot focused on HP, a vendor attempting to consolidate disparate product lines onto x86 and Itanium architectures while still responding to market demands.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the processors it uses. Several months ago, the market turned sweet for AMD-Opteron-based servers. HP responded with much fanfare and added two such offerings to its multilevel server stable.

Although some might read the additional platform support as evidence of a lack of confidence in a much-touted 64-bit Intel Itanium road map, the move demonstrates HP's responsiveness to customer needs.

This week, we follow up our Server Snapshot with a look at Townsend Analytics, a long-standing HP ProLiant customer that recently chose the vendor's Opteron upgrade path over that of Itanium.

Inventory Audit

Townsend Analytics is a software developer and service provider for the financial services industry. The company currently deploys what Lead Hardware Engineer Jon Akeson describes as a "few hundred" 2-way Xeon ProLiant DL360s, in a mix of older DL360 G1 or G2 and current G3 machines. For the most critical customer trade data applications, Akeson's group deploys clusters of ProLiant DL380 G3 servers. Other sporadic deployments include 4-way ProLiant ML570s and legacy 2-way ProLiant 6400s.

Townsend is a Microsoft shop, running Windows 2003 and Windows 2000 based servers with a few NT servers added to the mix. A batch of 1U DL360s run Townsend's own Windows-based RealTick stock quote distribution software. 1U commodity servers are sufficient, as the software performs its own load balancing and doesn't require redundancy.

The ProLiant DL360
HP ProLiant DL360 servers are widely deployed at Townsend Analystics.

"This is streaming data, for the most part, so where the data comes from is not as important as the fact that it's coming from someplace," Akeson said. If a 1U machine crashes, unique data will not be lost. Other 1U servers fill traditional Web server and Web-enabled application roles.

For more state-dependent applications (like order routing) or small databases, Akeson's team relies on the dual power supplies, redundant memory and larger hard drive capacity inherent to multiprocessor DL380s. "More redundant machines, we use for situations where we're actually carrying information about stocks that a customer's ordered," Akeson said.

Some DL380s are deployed in prepackaged two-server clusters from HP. These are Fibre Channel or SCSI-equipped and sturdily support Townsend's Microsoft SQL Server-based tasks. "So far they've been bulletproof," Akeson says, as a "convenient higher availability option for our most critical, state dependent customer data."

Although Townsend does occasionally use other vendors, it mainly deploys products from HP, and Akeson does not see this changing, even in the long term.

Forecast: Buy

Townsend's relationship with HP originated with Compaq. Following the acquisition, it continued its relationship with the new vendor for several reasons. "They have a very consistent set of deployment and manageability features, which makes it extremely easy for our entire operations group to deploy them in a consistent way," Akeson says, "which can be difficult when you have over 40 people in an operations department, all deploying servers." He cites good management tools, good reliability, and an "extremely proactive" support response by HP as other reasons for continued satisfaction.

Standardized accessories and form factors in equipment, like hard drives, and power supplies also help protect Townsend's investments. "When you have several hundred machines, you need to be able to move your parts around," Akeson said. "Sometimes we tear entire systems down, then put them back up in a different way," he adds, "we don't want to have to buy different parts, just because we're using a specific piece of equipment."

>> Bullish on Opteron

Bullish on Opteron

64-bit computing should be a boon for several of Townsend's applications — most obviously SQL Server, for which Akeson is awaiting a version that supports the new architecture. HP's release of Opteron servers generated much interest, as Opteron "has really good 32-bit performance and most of our software is 32-bit at this point," Akeson said. "[Opteron's] absolutely the correct choice for us in terms of asset longevity, and fortunately, HP came around and actually offered an AMD 64-bit product, which from all of our testing, is absolutely incredible at running 32-bit code."

The Intel Nocona chip, while worth "a try," is less appealing to Akeson at this time, given that "the AMD product is here now." Townsend has no plans to replace all of its IA-32 products with Opteron; rather, it will gradually work the performant AMD chips into its operations in a "slow process."

Surviving a Crash

From a support perspective, Townsend's experience with HP has been completely positive. It has opted not to rely on a 24x7 support contract with HP. To minimize the damage of an after-hours crash, "I keep two or three of everything that might blow up," Akeson said. "If you have that many servers, things are going to blow up occasionally, and that seems to work out really well for us," he added.

Should the server room equivalent of Black Monday strike Townsend, however, an HP sales engineer is available to lend a hand. Akeson also notes that HP has been "really generous" about lending other engineers to tackle those elusive bears when they crop up.

Extended Forecast

With its improved attempts to keep up with the technology curve in recent years, HP has outperformed the wish list of admins like Akeson. "They've continued to be a solid vendor, but they're also more bleeding-edge now," he said. Akeson cites HP's bolstered SAN offerings and cheerfully reiterates its Opteron additions as examples. He is also looking forward to HP's foray into the 64-bit blade space, which is scheduled to occur before 2005 in Opteron form.

HP's close read of the market has helped customers like Townsend remain bullish about their relationship. By keeping an ear to the ground and an eye on the big board, the vendor has held on to, and expanded, its customer base.

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