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Good Food, Great Speakers, but Alpha/Tru64 Roadmap Dominates HP/Whitehead Seminar

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The promotional materials were revised, the nametags were correct, and the Powerpoint slides were updated, but it was clear at a seminar hosted last week by the ‘new’ Hewlett-Packard that customers and employees of the former Compaq are still acclimating to post-merger life.

All transitions take some getting used to (some customers and employees are apparently still recovering from Compaq’s 1998 acquisition of Digital) but last week’s event, “21st Century Life Science Technology Revolution,” highlighted the uncertainty that some of Compaq’s largest customers in the life sciences market are experiencing in the wake of the HP merger — as well as the lengths that HP is willing to go in order to reassure them of a seamless transition process.

The eighth in a series of similar seminars Compaq has hosted with its partners, including the Whitehead Institute, Platform, Oracle, and Intel, last week’s get-together in Cambridge, Mass., served a slightly different purpose than those in the past. Rather than a gathering of prospective new customers, last week’s crowd was made up primarily of current clients seeking answers to the doubts that have plagued them since Compaq’s double dose of bad news — the announcement that it would be migrating its Alpha chip to Itanium followed by word (and the subsequent prolonged saga) of the HP merger. But with all that now settled, HP officials took every available opportunity last week to convince customers of their commitment to a smooth transition.

Kicking off the three-day event, Rich Marcello, VP and general manager of HP’s High-Performance Systems Division, admitted that the company had put its Alpha customers in a “difficult position” over the last nine months, but said the integration has been “like night and day” compared to other mergers and acquisitions that Compaq has experienced. “Most of what we’ve been doing reminds me of the good parts of Digital,” he said. This view was echoed later by Al Meier, a senior systems engineering consultant with HP who has been with the company since Digital, who noted that most former Digital staffers are relieved to be “back at an engineering company instead of a company that thinks IP is something Microsoft invented.”

Marcello reiterated the company’s motivation behind the decision to migrate from Alpha to Itanium, noting that technical evaluations indicated there would be no difference between the two technologies after 2004. As for the decision to merge its Tru64 Unix operating system with HP-UX, the only aspect of its roadmap that did change pre- and post-merger, Marcello said that although Tru64 is a “great Unix product,” its lagging market share behind HP, Sun, and IBM was one of the reasons for the merger. HP still intends to sell Alphaservers through 2006 and support them through 2011, and Tru64 will be available on Alphas through 2006 as well. The first Alpha features should begin appearing in the Itanium by around 2004, at which time compilers and code analysis tools will also become available for customers to begin moving their software to the new systems.

Of course, the company’s promises have not assuaged all customer angst. John “Scooter” Morris, principal systems architect at Genentech, took the opportunity during his talk on his company’s Alpha-based IT infrastructure to do a bit of rabble-rousing, asking attendees to voice their concerns about the Alpha-to-Itanium and Tru-64-to-HP-UX transitions. K. M. Peterson, manager of computer systems operations at the Whitehead, pointed out that even if he believes there’s nothing to worry about, “it’s difficult to explain to management that it’s a sound idea to continue buying Alphas.” Andrea Califano, CTO at First Genetic Trust, noted that while the Itanium transition had a longer planning process and was not dependent on the merger, the move to HP-UX did cause a bit more concern because it seemed like “the decision was made overnight, and you don’t want to hurry these things up.”

But HP proved willing to listen to these worries, and put together a special luncheon roundtable to further discuss some of the issues Morris raised. In fact, proving that the squeaky wheel does indeed get the grease, Morris hit Marcello with a suggestion immediately following his opening talk, requesting that the company bump up certain aspects of the roadmap from 2004 to 2003. Marcello warmly welcomed the suggestion.

The meeting’s impressive speaker list also provided a bit of a training session for HP employees not yet familiar with the intricacies of the life sciences market. Of the 200 or so total attendees, around 40 were HP staffers — some from the “classic Compaq” side, but many “heritage HP” staff as well, brushing up on the problems faced by a market that HP hadn’t devoted much attention to before acquiring Compaq. Those new to the field — and even genomics and bioinformatics veterans — couldn’t have asked for a better crash course, which included a talk by Eric Lander and a tour of the Whitehead Center for Genomics Research sequencing facility. Other talks ran the gamut from pure IT to business and legal issues to cutting-edge biological science.

— BT

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