H-P to Challenge IBM in Supercomputing With Apollo

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Hewlett-Packard is taking on International Business Machines in high-end supercomputers, the latest sign that H-P is doubling down on technology hardware while IBM pulls back from the market.

On Monday, H-P announced two new computer server products under the new Apollo brand name. One of the machines, the H-P Apollo 6000, combines up to 160 low-end servers in one rack that H-P says will offer high performance computing capabilities that are superior to existing systems while using up to about half of the energy. These types of systems sell for less than $100,000, but can go as high as $500,000, says research firm IDC.

The other system, the H-P Apollo 8000, will be the world’s first completely liquid-cooled supercomputer that lets H-P compete for the first with IBM and Cray in the high end of the market, says Antonio Neri, H-P’s head of servers and networking. Those machines typically sell for $500,000 at the low end, but can easily reach into the millions of dollars or more.

“We are redefining the energy of data centers,” says Neri, who says the supercomputer requires 28% less energy than air-cooled systems. “It is a huge opportunity for us.”

The overall server market hasn’t seen much revenue growth in recent years, says IDC analyst Steve Conway, but he said H-P is smart to beef up its offerings in the high performance computing because it is the fastest growing part of the industry. IDC expects the market to see a 7% compounded annual growth rate between 2014 and 2017.

Last year, H-P was the worldwide leader in the overall $10.3 billion market for high-performance computing, which includes supercomputers, claiming a 32.3% share of shipments, up from 31% in 2012, according to IDC. IBM’s share fell to 27.7% last year from 32% a year earlier.

“Given their experience to date, [H-P] will have some successes right away,” Conway said.

Still, Conway cautioned that sales will ramp slowly since H-P needs to learn more about how to sell and support different kinds of customers in the high performance market. “They have to gain some experience with the kinds of customers and applications that need supercomputers,” he said.

Supercomputers are used by government organizations, such as the Department of Energy laboratories, and corporations that require massive computing power for complex calculations.

The Apollo 8000 cools the machines by sending water through channels built into the chassis surrounding the computers. The warm water is then circulated out of the chassis through a pipe system that companies must build in their data centers. H-P says the warm water can be used to heat parts of other facilities.

Neri says he believes the two new systems will help H-P boost sales in its enterprise group that sells computing hardware. That group’s revenue declined 2% to $6.7 billion in the most recent quarter after recording small gains in the two previous periods.

IBM remains committed to the high end of the computer hardware market, which includes its flagship mainframe product. But as revenue from its overall hardware business erodes, it is retreating from the low-end where the company has had difficulty competing in sectors that are being commodified. In January, IBM announced it had agreed to sell its low-end server business to Lenovo Group Ltd. for $2.3 billion in cash and stock.

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