HP Moves on IA-64

HP and Intel expect much from the move to IA-64. Whether or not they'll be successful remains to be seen.

Intel’s Itanium, the first microprocessor to boast the Explicitly Parallel Instruction-set Computing (EPIC) architecture, may finally be poised for volume shipment. If all goes according to plan, this fall HP will launch an Itanium-based system that can run either HP-UX, Linux or Windows NT. MPE/iX systems with the EPIC architecture will ship about the time Intel unveils the second of its IA-64 chips, the McKinley.

Jim Carlson, HP’s Director of Marketing for IA-64 systems, says, "We’re bringing over a whole raft of applications under binary compatibility mode. Some have been recompiled and developed just for the system but many will run as strict binaries." Carlson adds that this parallels what HP did years ago with the HP 3000, in the transition from CISC to RISC technology.

HP and Intel expect much from the move to IA-64, not the least of which is a means of challenging Sun Microsystems, which owns a healthy share of the 64-bit high-end server market. Whether or not they’ll be successful remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt they have committed to a years-long struggle to bring IA-64-based systems to market. That struggle began with the formation of the HP, Intel alliance.

The HP, Intel Alliance

Almost six years years ago, HP looked into the future and saw that its PA-RISC chips would eventually run out of steam. The company knew it had to provide an architecture that would offer its customers performance headroom for the future. With that in mind, HP forged an alliance with Intel designed to develop a next-generation architecture. The companies intended to make the new architecture pervasive in the industry. HP had another goal in mind – the architecture would have to work on its HP 9000s and 3000s, extending their longevity for years to come.

Four years ago, Intel and HP completed their work on a specification for the new architecture. Intel started to design the first processor, then called Merced, and now called Itanium. HP simultaneously worked on the design of the system and developed an eight-way system using the Merced chip. The chip design fell behind schedule, however, so HP released its new eight-ways as the N Class servers.

Since the chassis, power supply and backplane bus of the N class had been designed for IA-64, the system was machine board-upgradable to IA-64. For that reason, HP was able to demonstrate the first transaction on a Merced bus in October 1998.

As far as applications were concerned, HP was using simulators a great deal in the port of HP-UX to IA-64, and lab engineers were planning to demo the Oracle database application on the simulator. They also decided to demo Linux on the simulator. The interest in Linux spurred David Mosberger, an engineer in HP’s labs to port the Linux kernel to IA-64. That was the beginning of the Trillian project, a consortium of vendors dedicated to making Linux work on Itanium chips.

The Trillian project has grown to embrace IBM, SGI, VA Linux Systems, Intel, Red Hat, Caldera, SuSE, TurboLinux, CERN and Red Hat-owned Cygnus. All four Linux vendors in the project have promised to ship versions of their software for IA-64 as soon as there are volume shipments of Itanium processors. Last February, Trillian made a version of Linux that runs on IA-64 available to the public.

As HP worked on HP-UX and Linux, it also teamed up with Microsoft to port NT to IA-64. And it didn’t forget one of its longest-lived operating systems. In the summer of 1998, HP’s Commercial Systems Division (CSY), announced that it has begun work on a port of MPE/iX to IA-64 and would develop IA-based HP 3000 systems.

By this time, HP had also formed a consortium with two universities – the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and New York University – to begin training computer scientists in the development of parallel structures. HP’s purpose, Carlson says, is "to train scientists in how you actually develop a computer from scratch – develop your programs, compilers, software – to be able to feed information to a CPU in parallel to obtain high performance." If computer scientists are trained how to program for parallelism, Carlson says, "you get performance breakthroughs because someone says, for example, here’s how we’re going to do 16 instructions at a time."

In September 1998, the Trimaran consortium released the EPIC compiler technology into the academic community. HP’s move gave all vendors the ability to develop fairly equal compilers. Carlson says, however, that over time HP plans to obtain an edge in compiler technology.

HP Demos Itanium-Based Systems

Having helped to develop EPIC architecture and worked to further the acceptance of IA-64 processors, HP began to demonstrate applications running on Itanium-based systems. At Oracle OpenWorld last November, HP demonstrated binary and data compatibility using Oracle8i database software running on HP-UX 11 on an Itanium-based server. Using a dynamic translator it had developed, HP ran software originally compiled on PA-RISC on the IA-64 system. HP demonstrated data compatibility by using a database originally loaded from the PA-RISC version of Oracle 8i.

In February, HP followed up on its demo of the Oracle application by demonstrating other applications running on Itanium-based systems at Intel’s Developer Forum. In an enterprise server demo, HP ran Synopsys’ EDA application on Trillian Linux on an IA-64 server. The Synopsys software illustrates one market in which Itanium "makes a lot of sense," according to Jim Carlson. The application is used by electronics companies to verify complex system-on-chip and ASIC devices. Itanium’s strong floating- point performance makes it particularly suitable for this market.

Looking Ahead

HP is "slowly but surely getting software development machines from Intel," Carlson says. As the number of machines increases, HP is beginning to work with ISVs and developers within corporations – to make sure that binaries run properly. The process usually involves quick certification because of the binary compatibility with HP-UX.

HP also plans to establish porting centers in the United States and Europe – and may set one up in the Asia Pacific – to further development of solutions for IA-64. The centers will offer vendors an opportunity to port their software and create applications for a "three operating system combo," according to Carlson. In other words, vendors will be able to work with HP-UX, Linux and NT all at once, as well as test for compatibility on all three operating systems if they want to use binary compatibility as well.

As IA-64 moves forward, HP plans to continue to provide PA-RISC-based systems. This two-pronged strategy allows users to migrate to the new architecture when they’re ready rather than being forced to make the transition. HP’s retention of the PA-RISC architecture also protects the HP 3000 installed base, made up of users of PA-RISC systems.

As HP launches IA-64-based systems, users may well find that their performance may not top the performance of high-end PA-RISC systems. This probably will not be true in the technical market, where the high floating-point performance of the Itanium pulls it ahead of most chips. But, it may well be true of OLTP performance.

"Here," Carlson says, "performance depends on a lot on tuning up and down the system. Bring out a new chip, even if it’s a little bit faster, and the whole system has to be tuned to get the maximum performance."

HP has just demonstrated its PA-RISC strategy by launching the first system with the new PA-8600 processor. It also plans to launch a PA-8700-based system in about a year, and a PA-8800-based system about a year after that. Carlson says that the company hasn’t decided yet whether or not it will launch the PA-8900. Carlson is clear about HP’s long-term plans. "IA-64 is an extension of PA-RISC, and PA designers did a lot of the initial work on the architecture. Our goal always has been to move customers to IA-64."

– Jean Nattkemper, Editor at Large jnattkemper@hppro.com.