nav search

HP pits Matrix against Cisco's California

'We need blades. Lots of blades'

By Timothy Prickett Morgan, 20 Apr 2009

Mark Hurd, in a black leather overcoat, wearing dark shades, standing in a white room that stretches out to infinity. "We need blades. Lots of blades," he mutters.

...And suddenly there are racks and racks of servers, bigger than a Google data centre, hotter than a nuclear simulation, humming away, ready to take on Cisco Systems and its virtualised "California" blade system in a battle for the data center. In this case, though, the Matrix is the weapon, and one with a virtualisation bent, not the virtual world that needs to be destroyed.

Today, HP is announcing something called the BladeSystem Matrix and its Matrix Orchestration Environment (MOE), which is an amalgam of tools that HP has acquired and created from scratch to provision and manage server environments in a more autonomic fashion than has previously been possible.

Cisco is doing a blast-from-the-past by referring to its integrated blade server and networking gadget as a system. The California system is not a diet or a way of life, but a blade server with integrated switching and management located in the switches, formally known as the Unified Computing System.

HP could not just roll out a new blade management tool that is a mix of its Insight Management tools (which it gained through its $25bn Compaq acquisition in September 2001) and its server provisioning and patching tools (from its $1.6bn Opsware acquisition in July 2007) and leave it at that. HP wants drama, like the kind that Cisco is generating. But, unless HP decides to buy Sun Microsystems or something crazy like that, Cisco and Sun are going to be getting most of the drama points in the systems racket for a while. Not the BladeSystem Matrix.

That doesn't mean that an integrated system is a bad idea. With the economy being in the dumps, any technology that allows data centres to be run with fewer people while handling more workloads is going to be something that is popular with the CEOs and CFOs. Cisco is coming at the problem from the networking side and extending into servers, while HP has been coming at it from the server side and extending out to networking for the past decade.

The Matrix system software, according to Gary Thome, chief strategist for infrastructure software and blades at HP's Enterprise Storage and Server unit, is the culmination of a decade of work, which started when HP began talking about utility computing before the Compaq deal. The software weaves together many different technologies, but the new bit - and perhaps the best bit - is a new graphical templating environment. This allows administrators to build a pictorial representation of a software stack as it is running on a multiple-tier collection of servers, then provision this n-tier stack onto real blade servers. It can then be deployed in a matter of days, instead of a month or more across multiple teams (servers, storage, networking, software, and so forth) who all have to sign off on it.

Such graphical tools have been around forever, of course, but they are created by managers and programmers who then hand the pictures to a human being, who then configures and tests the software.

"Matrix is the world's first push-button data center," says Thome. "Or you can call it a cloud in a box. The point is, it converges all of the infrastructure and management together."

That is, of course, the message that Cisco is peddling with the California blade setup. It converges servers and networking into a single, compact box that has virtual and real switches and can be managed with the same tools that Cisco network engineers are already used to. Cisco has not been very clear about storage, beyond saying that EMC and NetApp arrays will plug into the converged switches, which support network and storage over the same switches.

So what is Matrix? Basically, it is the Insight systems management software already on the blades, merged with the orchestration software that came from Opsware (formerly known as Opsware Workflow) that has been given that graphical templating environment to make it easier to provision, patch, and manage servers and their software. HP has created all of the templates for the Opsware tool necessary to manage its various server blades and chassis, its Virtual Connect virtualised I/O for storage and networking, and the usual suspects in terms of operating systems (Windows, Linux, and HP-UX). Thome says that HP is working on templates that will allow Matrix to control Microsoft, Oracle, and other databases, and then popular application software that runs atop all this. Customers can use the Matrix tools to create their own templates for automating homegrown code.

As we previously reported, Cisco has embedded its management code inside the switch atop its chassis, which is known as the UCS 6100 fabric interconnect. HP is putting the Matrix software onto an x64 blade in its BladeSystem chassis. (Not on a service processor inside the chassis, which may or may not make a difference to IT managers.) One of the key features of the Matrix software stack, called Virtual Connect Enterprise Manager v1.30, can manage LAN and SAN connectivity for hundreds of BladeSystem enclosures and can assign failover assignments for up to 200 server-to-network virtual connect domains.

The Matrix hardware includes the c7000 chassis, as well as the current ProLiant G6 generation of blade servers, using Intel's quad-core "Nehalem EP" Xeon 5500 or Advanced Micro Devices' quad-core "Shanghai" Opterons. Presumably the next generation of quad-core "Tukwila" Itanium processors and the current generation of dual-core Itanium 9100 processors are also part of the Matrix hardware mix.

According to HP, a Matrix environment can be extended to manage up to 1,000 systems, which is far more scalable than what Cisco has achieved with California. Using the top-end 40-port version of the UCS 6100 fabric, a California blade system tops out at 320 servers.

HP was also keen to point out that it has its own storage, unlike Cisco. The Matrix system will include a new virtualized direct-attach storage array for the BladeSystem, which is comprised of a SmartArray 700m SAS RAID controller and a six-disk enclosure that plugs into the c7000 chassis. The controller on this blade and its disks connect to the chassis, which in turn maps storage to blades. Each server thinks it owns the disks assigned to it, as if they were plugged into SAS ports on the blade, but they are actually virtual SAS links that can be tweaked.

HP is also announcing an external StorageWorks Modular Disk System 600 array, which has a 5U enclosure that sits near the BladeSystem c7000 chassis and can hold up to 70 3.5-inch SAS or SATA drives. This external unit links to the chassis through an SAS controller, just like the internal one does. A single enclosure, equipped with the proper number of SAS modules, can have up to six MDS600 arrays linked to it, and the storage is mapped to the blades in the same way as with the internal disk enclosure for the c7000. The MDS600 array will be available at the end of April, with a starting price of $10,000. HP's StorageWorks EVA 4400 arrays can be plugged into the Matrix system, too, and these are in fact the default storage devices for Matrix right now.

HP was also keen to point out that the virtual SAN appliance software, which it got through its $360m acquisition of LeftHand Networks last October, will be deployable on a future release of the Matrix blade system, too. This P4000 SAN appliance software will be deployed on HP's SB40c storage blades. HP also says that starting on May 1, all of the former LeftHand products will be available across HP's server line and with HP part numbers.

In early tests, the Matrix setup allowed customers to cut down deployments for systems (meaning servers, storage, networks, and systems software) from an average of 33 days to 108 minutes. The Virtual Connect features in the blades cut down on Fibre Channel connectivity costs compared to rack-based servers, and the ThermalLogic power and cooling management software in the blades, including dynamic power capping, allowed customers to cut their juice bills by as much as 92 per cent.

A starter kit for the BladeSystem Matrix setup has a c7000 enclosure, a BL460c G6 blade running the Matrix Orchestration Environment and Insight Dynamics system management software. The setup also includes an EVA 4400 disk array and two Virtual Connect Flex-10 (10 Gigabit Ethernet) and 8 Gb Fibre Channel modules.

It costs $150,000. Server blades, additional storage, and systems software cost more on top of that. How much? Thome was unable to provide some comparisons, but said that a Matrix blade setup would cost "in the same ballpark" as a rack of servers with the same number of physical servers and storage.

Because this is HP, there is a services component to Matrix, too. The Matrix implementation service rolls HP's factory software integration, as well as onsite implementation and testing services, into one package with one year of 24x7 software and update support. A beefier version called Matrix Support Plus 24 expands hardware maintenance and software support to three years, and it costs $15,340. (This is presumably for a single Matrix chassis.) HP is also offering something called the Insight Capacity Advisor Virtualisation Service in Asia/Pacific and Japan that helps customers plan their server, storage, and network virtualisation for $7,995. This virtualisation advisory service will be deployed worldwide this summer. ®