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Compaq Was The Original “King Of Servers”

Mention “PC server originator” to almost any network administrator, and the first name he or she will most often mention is Compaq Computer Corp. That’s because the formerly Houston-based PC colossus literally invented the genre in 1989 with the introduction of the SystemPRO, one of the first PC systems designed from the ground up as a network server.

A classic Compaq SystemPRO

A classic Compaq SystemPRO

It’s no surprise then that now HP/Compaq commands the top spot in the PC server marketplace. In 1992, Compaq shipped more than 40,000 servers, earning 26% of the server market and the distinction of being the No. 1 selling Intel-based server brand in the United States, according to the market research firm BIS Strategic Decisions in Norwell, Mass. And that’s in a crowded, $1.5 billion server industry–spawned by the SystemPRO–that sells everything from technically advanced, specially designed systems to garden-variety PCs tilted sideways.

But despite all of Compaq’s success fending off hoards of margin-shaving PC vendors in the server business, Gary Stimac, senior vice president and general manager of Compaq’s Systems Division, still longs to move the company’s servers into new territory: as fault tolerant, mission-critical, midrange (and, yes, even mainframe) system replacements–at PC prices.

The product family that Stimac hopes will enable Compaq to seize that new territory, at least in the network server market segment (defined as up to four processors), is the ProLiant family of servers, announced last month. Compaq says this new family of machines is for IS shops that have outgrown the SystemPRO or are downsizing from mainframe and minicomputer systems to PC-based client/server architectures.

“We’re especially interested in the high-end ProLiants,” says a spokesman for Launchscore.com, a small business idea generator looking to augment its existing 35 SystemPRO servers with more horsepower. “It definitely fills a gap for us, especially as we implement more compute-intensive, client/server-type applications.”

Compaq’s ProLiant servers are high-end brethren of the general-purpose ProSignia server line and also next-generation replacements of the aging SystemPRO line, which will gradually be phased out over the coming year. Although the SystemPRO was, by any measure, a successful product for Compaq, it lacked the fault tolerant features needed to make it a serious contender in running the mission-critical, on-line applications usually found on mainframe and minicomputer systems today. And, as many IS shops have discovered, to make a SystemPRO fault tolerant is costly. Many have opted to purchase a second system to function as a redundant server.

Even more damning to the SystemPRO’s success as a bet-your-business system replacement has been its own cost. A fully outfitted system’s price, at upwards of $30,000, nudges into VAX, HP 3000 and AS/400 territory-much to the chagrin of Is managers trying to convince upper management that the SystemPRO’s quality is worth the money. “There’s no question, it’s been a good investment, but it’s not always one we can convince management is a best buy,” says Fred Zickert, manager of microcomputer support at Cleveland-based Eaton Corp., a manufacturer of auto parts. Zickert manages more than 30 SystemPROs, serving more than 1,200 users and handling such tasks as general administration and office automation.

Managers like Zickert may have a much easier time trying to justify the ProLiant. Available in three models and more than 20 standard configurations, the ProLiant line starts with a single 486/50 processor model 1000 and goes up to the four-Pentium symmetric-multiprocessing (SMP) model 4000. All sporting fault tolerance, remote system management, drastically simplified setup and configuration and–the kicker–“Pc land” list prices ranging from $5,000 for the single 486/50 system to $20,000 for the four-Pentium model. In terms of performance, Compaq says a four Pentium system has been clocked at 350 transactions per second in internal benchmark tests. The company has not yet had tests performed using the industry standard Transaction-Processing Performance Council’s TPC-A benchmark. (The 350tps would compare to a dual 486based SystemPRO/XL at 270tps under TPC-A.)

The ProLiant grew out of customer demands for more raw processing power, system manageability and fault tolerance, and Compaq’s perception that a lower price point was needed. “I’ve been telling Compaq for four years now that we want more than two processors,” says Louis Kahn, chief of computer and network operations for the national immunization program at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. “Our new applications running on Windows NT need multiple processors.” The CDC has more than 200 SystemPROs, and Kahn says he will evaluate the ProLiant for future use.

Compaq’s ambition for the ProLiant is to ship thousands of systems per month and dominate the PC server market. “In the short term, it’s the Pc vendors we are going to knock off with this–IBM, Dell, AST,” predicts Stimac. “And in the long term, as client/server computing happens, our competition will be the RISC platform vendors, as well as the legacy systems themselves from minicomputers to mainframes.”

That may seem shamelessly boastful, even for the market leader. But consider Compaq’s low-price/highvolume strategy, successfully used with its ProLinea desktop and Contura notebook machines. “Everything within Compaq, basically, is that you build it and sell it by the tonnage, you have tremendous margins, and you do it in a very, very efficient way,” says Stimac.

One of the ProLiant’s biggest draws–and biggest cost-saving features–may be its fault-prevention and fault tolerant capabilities, designed to keep server downtime to a minimum. For the ProLiant, Compaq built new fault-prevention circuitry and software to track system components–disk drives, controllers, processors–and to predict impending failures before they occur. The company will even replace a part indicated by the system for impending failure–before it fails–free of charge under Compaq’s three-year warranty. A four-hour service option is also available, although only in 40 large metropolitan areas.

If a component does fail, Compaq designed the ProLiant to carry on anyway. Disk drives are hot-swappable. On multiprocessor systems, if one processor fails, the server will automatically reboot to a remaining processor. Another feature, called Rapid Recovery Engine, can restart the server after a failure, log possible reasons and notify a network administrator by automatically dialing his or her telephone pager. And Compaq now offers an optional uninterruptible power supply.

A major goal of the ProLiant series, says Compaq, is to make the Draconian process of system configuration a whole lot easier. Just how tough is it to install and configure a network operating system on a server? In the initial design phase for the ProLiant servers, Compaq invited groups of experienced network administrators into its labs to find out. The administrators were given a fresh SystemPRO and a stack of operating system software disks–29 to be exact for SCO UNIX– along with several feet of installation manuals.

Stimac says that, on average, it took the administrators six hours and at least six conversations with support personnel just to get the systems running. “So we thought, OK, fine, let’s go measure the performance on these systems. We found that almost every one of the systems was miserable–they had the wrong drivers, the setup was wrong, it was just an absolute disaster,” says Stimac.

The fiasco led Compaq’s engineers to develop a slick new setup utility called SmartStart that promises to have servers up and running in minutes. The CD-ROM-based software ships with every ProLiant, as does password-keyed CD-ROM versions of Novell Inc.’s NetWare, Microsoft Corp.’s Windows NT and NT Advanced Server, and The Santa Cruz Operation Inc.’s SCO UNIX.

The SmartStart CD includes a boot track and utilities to let administrators format and partition a primary hard disk. SmartStart then presents users with a graphical screen displaying buttons representing each of the three network os options. When one os is selected, SmartStart prompts the user for a software activation key–a password obtained from the user’s reseller–to activate and license the selected operating system. Then SmartStart configures and optimizes the server hardware for the chosen OS and prompts the administrator for user profiles, software setup, disk and network configuration information, and server management options. The software is then installed from the CD-ROM without the need for further user intervention–or disk swapping.

Using SmartStart, Compaq says, completely setting up a new network server including installation of operating software, expansion card configuration files and basic user information–can be done in as little as 45 minutes. Of course, for hard-core command-line administrators, SmartStart includes an advanced setup mode and fully manual installation.

“Server setup can take six, eight, 10 hours easily. That [SmartStart] is something I have been asking Compaq to do for some time,” says Eaton’s Zickert. “There are other advantages to this. You know it is going to be a clean installation, and it’s protected from outside corruption and interference. And all of the documentation is on line. I could see this being useful for more than just servers.”

ProLiant servers ship with Compaq’s second version of its Insight Manager software application, which gives administrators a graphical depiction of both local and remote server performance from central or remote locations via phone lines. Insight Manager uses the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), allowing it to be tied into network management systems like Novell’s NetWare Management System, Hewlett-Packard Co.’s OpenView and SunConnect’s SunNet Manager. While it’s designed to work with Compaq’s network interface cards (NICs), Insight Manager also works with third-party NICs.

Part of the idea with Insight Manager, says Compaq, is that administrators can, from a laptop over a phone line, monitor remote servers tucked into a closet a thousand miles away. And to make remote problem diagnosis easier, Compaq designed drive failure indicators into the front of the servers, so personnel in remote offices can easily tell when problems exist.

While the ProLiant systems may have the right combination of features, price and performance, Compaq still has to convince users that its new features add up to a hardware platform capable of handling mission-critical applications. (Software necessary to support such environments is another matter.) And to maintain its No. 1 spot–and take over minicomputer territory–Compaq will have to fend off competition from high-end server makers, low-end commodity PC vendors and almost everyone in between (see sidebar, “Compaq’s Server Competitors”).

Compaq is already hard at work on enhancements to keep ProLiant up to such mission-critical responsibilities. Redundant power supplies and next-generation Pentium processors will be added next year, as will an option to let users cluster groups of ProLiants for even greater processing power. Stimac says Compaq is also working with database management system vendors to develop a SmartStart automatic installation and configuration utility for server DBMSs. That may ship as early as this fall.

Users say the ProLiant’s advantage relative to other vendors’ PC servers is the company’s reputation for quality. “Almost without exception, you can bring in a server from Compaq, and you know that it is going to run and do what it is supposed to do, out of the box. It’s amazing how often we plug in equipment from other manufacturers, and it doesn’t run,” says Eaton’s Zickert.

“For the most part, our SystemPROs have been absolutely error free.” he adds. “And if there is one thing we continue to impress on Compaq, it’s don’t forsake the quality.”

System PRO: Going, Going…Not Quite Gone

Compaq Computer Corp.’s venerable SystemPRO line of servers were eventually folded into the company’s new ProLiant server family, says Compaq Systems Division senior vice president and general manager Gary Stimac. That does not mean that many of these servers, now badged as HP ProLiant, are still in service. In fact, some of the HP ProLiants that are less than 20 years are currently working in many industries. The older hardware is so popular, in fact, that noted data recovery company Hard Drive Recovery Group still offers a guide to recovering data from a HP ProLiant hard drive array.

“These things take a licking, but keep on ticking,” says Greg Elias, a data recovery engineer. “I hate to be too obvious, but these machines really were made better. This is why the older Compaq, and HP ProLiants still are in operation.”

So while Compaq may no longer be king, its servers keep serving.

 

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