Sharpening the blade




Front row, from left: Steve Gillaspy, Gary Thome and Jason Newton

Back row, from left: Matt Foley, PMP, Mike Pelonero, John Nguyen and Kurt Manweiler

LAST JUNE, more than 16,000 journalists, industry insiders and customers gathered at sites worldwide and online for the launch of Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co.'s BladeSystem c-Class, a portfolio of new server products. This was no ordinary product debut. The launch was one of the company's largest in terms of the sheer number of products and press interest. It also marked the most comprehensive project since HP's merger with Compaq Computer Corp. in 2002.

“The computer industry has been consolidating for some time and there are a wide variety of heritages within the company. We have folks from Digital Equipment Corp., Tandem Computers, Compaq, HP and a few more,” says Matt Foley, PMP, program manager, HP, Houston, Texas, USA. “This was the first project that really drew on the talent of all of those organizations, and we got more help than lip service—we received legitimate assistance from a wide variety of HP teams.”

The teamwork paid off. The new line promises to slash operational and capital expenditures by 46 percent in data center implementations, according to an HP study of 320 servers over three years.

Give Them What They Want

Like all technology, servers have evolved since they were introduced in 1989. “They were originally designed to sit on the floor and you just kind of set them side by side,” says Gary Thome, director of strategy and architecture for HP BladeSystem. “Over time, we moved to rack-mount servers—the industry standard was 19 inches—that allowed you to sit one server on top of another.” Many organizations were using a large number of servers in their data centers, however, and managing them was getting burdensome. It became abundantly clear that a new solution was needed.

“We started looking at ways to more tightly couple multiple servers together so that they were more manageable and useful to customers,” Mr. Thome says. That effort evolved into the blade server system. The new industry standard, it allows multiple blade servers to slide into an “enclosure,” which looks like an empty box. As soon as the server slides into the enclosure, it's automatically connected to the data center's system. The enclosures help IT departments consolidate their huge racks of servers into smaller packages.

“It's a rethinking of the way not only the server designs are made, but also of the infrastructure that supports the server,” says Jason Newton, worldwide marketing communications manager for HP BladeSystem. “It makes the overall solution more integrated and modular.”

When designing the new BladeSystem server and accompanying products, the project team tried to consider every potential scenario and customer. “Blades can address a very broad sector of the server industry,” Mr. Foley says, and the new products had to work for all those users.

“We really worked on having a solid understanding of what the customer needed before we went into execution mode,” Mr. Thome says. Taking the time to fully understand those demands helped with the execution phase because the teams weren't constantly finding themselves needing to redefine the project. “That obviously has a huge impact on staying on schedule,” he says.

Connecting the Products

Although the server was the primary showpiece of the launch, the announcement actually included a whole portfolio of products. “There were so many pieces that had to hit at the same time,” Mr. Newton says. “They are all interdependent. An enclosure without the server doesn't do much. The server without the network doesn't work. Instead of launching one product, we were launching a complete portfolio.”

In all, there were 13 sellable products announced on launch day, and HP had four major goals for them:

1. Improve the ease of systems management. Many organizations have a small number of people to manage and maintain a large number of servers. The idea was to make the IT infrastructure more responsive to changing business demands.

2. Decrease the cost of power and cooling. It's becoming more expensive to power servers, let alone provide ample cooling capabilities. “Customers were starting to see their power bills increasing,” Mr. Thome says. “So our second challenge was, ‘How do we help our customers make their servers and their environments more energy-friendly, more energy-efficient, more energy-thrifty?’”

3. Reduce time and money devoted to maintaining servers. HP wanted was free up some of that time and money by building a system that could increase productivity 10-fold.

4. Increase the enclosure's life span from three to four years to five to seven years. “[A longer lifespan] helps customers stabilize their environment,” Mr. Foley says.

Keep It Cool

The new Bladesystem c-Class is loaded with new technologies aimed at improving server performance, but the team had to walk a fine line. “As we set out to address these customer challenges, there was a ton of technology we needed to invent to make all of this work,” Mr. Thome says. The team was careful, however, to set up the architecture and schedule of the projects so it could be selective about which technologies were to be announced on the initial launch date and which could be de-coupled from the base product.

The company's new Active Cool fans were considered absolutely necessary. “With these new fans, the BladeSystem was far more efficient in terms of power efficiency and cooling efficiency,” Mr. Thome says. The team was apprehensive, however, about whether or not it could get the fans finished in time for the initial launch. “But we looked at it and said ‘We were not going to be able to meet the customer requirements and market requirements without those fans,’” he says. “So we got started on that fan design long before we had the concepts completed on what the blade design was going to be. We worked on those two items in parallel and merged them along the way because we felt that was an absolutely needed technology.”


Selecting exactly when to announce Hewlett-Packard Co.'s (HP) new BladeSystem c-Class proved to be one of the most important project decisions. “The summer is fraught with landmines of when the right time is to announce [a new product],” says Jason Newton, HP. “You don't want to compete with any other news within your company. And if you go into July or August you get into that summer dead time [in the northern hemisphere]. People are on vacation and Europe traditionally sees very large groups of employees and customers going on vacation.”

If HP were to wait until September, it risked competing with the back-to-school barrage, and every other company wanting to kick off the fall with a new announcement. “If we didn't hit that June window we would have not only missed that communications window but we would have given our competitors September to announce something,” Mr. Newton says. “We wanted to own the rest of the summer in…in the server and blade industry.”

The Core of the Matter

A separate division was created within HP to broaden the exposure of the BladeSystem and bring in ideas and opinions from across the company. Because of the large number of interdependent products being developed simultaneously, individual teams were organized into a larger extended team. “There were core teams around each one of the products,” Mr. Foley says. “Those core teams managed their own schedules and issues locally as much as possible.”



At the program office level, a weekly meeting was held to discuss issues and distribute information. The goal was to debut the products on 14 June, and teams would report their status relative to that date, Mr. Foley says. “What you see happening throughout the project is it closes like a funnel. In the earlier parts—two or more years ago when we were defining requirements—we were calling and talking to everybody.” Eighteen months before the product launch, the true plan went into execution. “We had some real hardware to play with and were moving forward,” he says. In those 18 months, the team decided which products would be ready and required for launch, and six months out, the tight integration schedule began. HP's software team, which tied all of the product components together, spearheaded the integrations.

“From there we not only held weekly project management meetings, but also had monthly reviews where each team got up and had its day in the sun,” he says. “All of the integration issues you would normally go through were aired in those meetings.”

Countdown to Launch

When it came to the actual launch of the BladeSystem c-Class project, the company wanted something big. Representatives from marketing and communications began working with the engineering and development teams nearly one year prior to the launch. “Normally we don't meet until 22 weeks prior to an agreed upon launch date,” Mr. Newton says. “Launches this size come along so rarely, maybe every three, four, five years, and you are pulling in a lot of shared resources from all over the organization.”

Each week, a worldwide conference call was held to discuss the four major goals of the launch's marketing and communication plan:

1. A worldwide live webcast on 14 June with representation in the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom.

2. Pre- and post-launch ad campaigns to build brand awareness.

3. A post-launch push to the website where customers could go for pricing, specs, brochures and white papers.

4. An internal communications toolkit that included messaging documents, branding guidelines, presentation materials and photography.

“Hundreds of people had their role to play in this,” Mr. Newton says, and keeping the message consistent on launch day was top priority. “How do you get everyone on the same page, saying the same thing?”

In November 2005, HP brought in all of its product managers from around the world and spent a week briefing them on the new products. “We went through and said ‘Here are the things we are going to focus on,’” Mr. Newton says. The product managers then went back to their homeland headquarters to brief their teams.

Feedback on the BladeSystem c-Class since the launch has exceeded HP's expectations. More than 130 countries were represented at the webcast, and to date, articles about the BladeSystem have appeared in more than 253 print and online publications around the world. “We met our key objectives to own that day and own the summer,” Mr. Newton says. “We have been deluged with customer requests, have spoken with customers we have never spoken to before about BladeSystem…and have been approached about business opportunities we haven't seen before. We've certainly captured the spark and imagination of the industry.” PM




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