HP Lays Claim To Its Engineering Legacy
Kathleen Maher
March 9, 2012

HP Lays Claim To Its Engineering Legacy

There’s no question that HP has been through the desert, and in fact, it’s not totally clear that the company has finished serving its time in hell for the sins of its CEOs. Luckily for the company, its resellers and developers are ready to cut new CEO Meg Whitman a little slack. As she gave one of her first speeches as CEO of HP, Whitman was applauded at the company’s Global Partner Convention held in Las Vegas last month. Comments during the question and answer period were unfailingly polite and flattering. Is it a honeymoon or a harbinger?
HP used the occasion of its reseller convention in Las Vegas to unveil new workstations and new strategies for the future. Nothing is so telling, we believe, than the fact that HP chose to highlight its new workstations (the details of which were under NDA until recently). The workstation market maintains the highest margins and its customers are the most demanding. While other PC markets have struggled or lost ground as notebooks steal share from desktops, and tablets steal share from notebooks, workstations have remained a stable platform. Compromising for a few bucks just doesn’t make sense for professionals whose work is mission-critical. This is where HP is rebuilding its rep.

If there’s one part of HP’s culture that once defined it and has been weakened, it is the company’s reputation as an R&D innovator. The rapacious cost cutting under CEO Mark Hurd began to cut into HP’s R&D budget. Then, Leo Apotheker, a CEO drawn from SAP and the software industry, further eroded the company’s reputation as a hardware innovator as he pulled daring products like the WebOS tablet even before they had a chance in the market, and threatened to sell off the entire PSG (Personal Systems Group), which includes PCs and workstations. 

So yeah, the fact that HP showcased its workstation division served as a notice to its entire ecosystem that, once again, HP will innovate. The company has a solid lineup, from powerful thin clients capable of real work, to powerful workstations and servers. 

The star of the show was undoubtedly the Z1, a new workstation in a class some companies didn’t even think possible—the all-in-one. This is the whole-shooting-match-in-one. Usually, workstations have a powerful graphics subsystem (the exception is workstations at work for some financial applications and software development). They have error-correcting memory. They are scalable and easily serviceable. New components can be swapped in and out, and it’s easy to get to everything in the computer. The new Z1 is all that.

In fact, the resemblance of the Z1 to the all-in-ones currently on the market is purely superficial. The HP Z1 workstation has been engineered to be rugged. The company has developed a patented system for the display—the stand can jack down, and the screen lies flat. It’s hinged so the screen lifts up to reveal the guts of the workstation inside. And, of course, it’s not enough to just cram everything in there, so HP has created modular units that fit neatly into the constrained space so they can be snapped in and out. The machine enables completely tooless servicing. Maybe even more important, it’s just slick. HP’s Workstation division executives Jim Zafrana and Jeff Wood proudly showed the latching mechanism that works like a BMW: You push it down and it slowly, deliciously latches itself. “Booyah!” said Jeff Wood.

HP has teamed with Nvidia, which has created modular graphics units to fit in the system and enable graphics upgrades, and everyone is very pleased with themselves. 

The base machine will ship for $1899. It is equipped with a Xeon processor with integrated graphics. Moving up the scale, HP worked with Nvidia to create a special graphics product for the Z1. They opted to use a mobile MXM GPU because mobile graphics modules are designed to run cool and quiet. Then, HP invented a custom blower and housing for the GPU, which snaps in and out of the Z1. Nvidia builds its own Quadro boards, and Nvidia GM Jeff Brown says that Nvidia built the boards for the Z1. Brown was on hand to help celebrate the unveiling of the HP boards. He told the audience at a presentation for press and analysts that the full Quadro line of graphics will be available as Z1 options. The boards will be available as after-market products sometime later in the year. The new machine supports PCI Express 3, which delivers twice the bandwidth of PCI Express 2.0.

The basic details for the Z1 shape up like this: 27-inch IPS display 2560×40, with over a billion colors; Xeon Core i3 2120/HD 2000 graphics for the base system, scales to quad-core Xeon E3-1245 or E3-1280; Nvidia Quadro Graphics options; various HDD options including SSD, RAID support. HP has also designed a Display Port that supports both input and output. The Z1 can support a secondary monitor mounted side by side using a heavy-duty VESA mount. The new workstations will have plenty of I/O including USB 3. 

HP’s new workstations

 With this new design, HP hopes to break new markets for the workstation business. The Z1 is stylish and it fits in tight spaces. In addition to the traditional workstation markets, including the financial industries, CAD, and content creation, HP believes the Z1’s design will open up markets for DAWs (digital audio workstations), civil engineering, and architecture houses, where there are small offices but style is important, as well as for digital photography. 

New Big Brothers

Almost lost in the shuffle came news in early March that HP also has four new workstations in its Z line: the Z420, the Z620, and the Z820, as well. The new workstations take advantage of Intel’s new E5 Xeon CPUs, enabling up to 16 processor cores and up to 512GB of DDR 3 memory. They, too, support PCI Express 3. Graphics options include the Quadro 6000, 5000, and 2000 boards. 

HP contends the Z420 is designed for mainstream workstation customers in CAD, architecture, video editing, and photography. It can be configured with up to eight processing cores, using Intel’s E5 1600 Xeon, and up to 96GB of ECC memory and up to 11TB of high-speed storage. It is available with Nvidia Quadro 6000 or Quadro 5000 graphics.

At the products’ unveiling, the HP Z620 was described as the workhorse of the line. HP’s Wood said machines in the Z620 range are put to work en masse in movie studios, where they take up little space and run quietly. HP maintains that the machines will also find work in financial services, video, animation, architecture, and mid-range CAD. The Z620 can be configured with up to 16 processing cores using Intel’s E5 2600 and Nvidia’s Quadro 6000 and Quadro 5000 graphics.

Finally, there is the current top-of-the-line machine built on Intel’s E5 2600—the Z820. It’s designed for huge amounts of data in applications such as oil and gas, mechanical CAD design, medical visualization, and animation. It can be configured with up to 16 cores and up to 512GB of ECC memory, and up to 14TB of high-speed storage. It uses Nvidia’s Quadro 6000 graphics. 

Prices will start at $1,169 for the HP Z420, $1,649 for the HP Z620, and $2,299 for the HP Z820. 
HP’s workstations also ship with RGS (Remote Graphics Software), which enables real-time collaboration and networked access to the workstations. It’s designed for high-performance applications. For instance, a person might work all day creating a character or 3D scene and kick off a rendering before leaving the office. RGS will allow that person to go home and check on the progress of the job. 

Little Brothers Push the Envelope

It has been easy to forget that while much of HP’s management seemed to be confused about the company’s plans for the future (at least in this writer’s opinion), the company’s divisions have been hammering away at their job. The new workstation introductions are a dramatic illustration of that. 

As part of a continuum of compute possibilities, HP also introduced powerful, new thin clients, the T510 and T610, signaling a brave new world in graphics computing. Or, maybe a more accurate way to put it is that HP is refining a technology that has been around for a very long time and it has become all but invisible. HP says there is a real demand for powerful thin clients that can deliver a seamless graphics experience. This is part of the continuum being built by new cloud capabilities. People are more willing to do real work on thin clients. HP’s new products are designed for financial institutions, medical offices, office workers because, says HP, there is much less compromise in the new thin clients of today. The new T510 is built on the Via Eden X2 processor with S3 Chromation graphics, and the T610 uses AMD’s G Series Fusion processor with integrated HD graphics. 

Now, where is the connection between HP’s +510 little client and the Z820 monster? The network, of course. HP is about systems. In addition to building PCs, and servers, and clients, the company builds networks and printers, and it builds-in management. Meg Whitman’s decision to keep the PSG computer group along with the rest of HP’s products gives it an advantage other companies don’t have, since IBM spun off its computer group into Lenovo. Leo Apotheker looked at IBM and was envious. 

His idea was to turn HP into something more like IBM with a strong software offering for information management, and he bought Autonomy, a software company that provides information management software for unstructured data, the kind of data that surrounds us and that we generate all the time. Autonomy makes unstructured data searchable; HP’s networking capabilities makes it manageable and accessible.

At her debut before partners and resellers, Meg Whitman made it clear that it’s all part of the same puzzle, and she wants all the pieces to work with. Rather than making HP more like IBM, Whitman wants to take advantage of its strengths in engineering and computing as well as software, services, networks, and printers. She said, “We have to do a better job of telling people what we can do.” And, she pledged, “We are going to be industry leaders again.”

It Ain’t Easy, and It Ain’t Over

The point of HP’s exhibition for the Global Partner Conference was to showcase the company’s strengths and to rally the troops. It was a success. However Whitman and her team had only enough time to unpack their suits and settle into their cubes before it was time to announce the company’s financials and then the triumph of just a few days before were all but forgotten—because investors have absolutely no memory. 

Reversing the trend: For all the positive news coming out of HP’s Global Partner Conference, the fact remains that the last 12 months have been tough for the company, and it is down in every segment, including PSG (computers), services, imaging and printing, and ESSN (enterprise/storage/servers/networks). Source: Company Information.

In her call to investors, Whitman reiterated the strengths and assets the company has with which to rebuild, but she reminded her listeners that it really is a process and it will take years. HP is not alone. The entire computer business is rebuilding after a world recession and new form factors are being introduced that change the way we think about computing. The thin clients are an example, and so are new tablets coming out. HP fully intends to be there with products that take advantage of Windows 8, including Windows on ARM. PSG chief Todd Bradley said, “Wait until you see what we do with Windows 8. Wait until you see what we do with Windows on ARM.” These, too, are pieces of the puzzle made more powerful by HP’s network management technology, remote graphics software, products working in the cloud, and so forth. 

It really is going to take time, and time might just be the one valuable commodity that HP doesn’t have a lot of. Meg Whitman’s real job going forward is to hold the faith of investors, HP’s board, and the HP employees while the company works to reclaim its position as an engineering leader.