Innovation on x86 to appear across Sun's hardware

Innovation on x86 to appear across Sun's hardware

Sun unveiled the first three members of its 64-bit "industry-standard" server family, their technology will appear in other hardware, notably Sparc servers.

Sun Microsystems unveiled the first three members of its 64-bit "industry-standard" server family, formerly code-named "Galaxy," at its quarterly product roll out in New York Monday. Although Sun executives spent much of the launch positioning the new servers, they did reveal that technologies debuting in the Sun Fire X2100, X4100 and X4200 machines will appear in the rest of the company's hardware, including its Sparc line of servers.

"We will extend [the Galaxy technologies] across our entire family," said John Fowler, executive vice president for Sun's network systems group, in a webcast question-and-answer session following the New York launch. The new servers run on Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Opteron processors and feature hot-swap functionality so that customers can take out and replace components including fans as the servers are running. The machines also have a special design to ease airflow to cut down on heat transmission and include sophisticated remote systems management, according to Sun executives.

Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's president and chief operating officer, amplified Fowler's comments, saying that the company's hardware, notably servers based on Sun's own Sparc processors, will "take advantage" of the Galaxy servers' new technologies. He didn't reveal how exactly this will occur, although Sun executives have confirmed as likely rumors that servers based on Sun's upcoming Niagara Sparc chip will use the same chassis as the new Sun Fire machines.

Schwartz doesn't expect that the new servers, which range from a one-way through a four-way system -- with an eight-processor, dual-core midrange server to appear later this year -- will cannibalize Sun's Sparc business. "I'm not worried about attriting Sparc," he said.

Sun will also be "doing something" unspecified with the Galaxy new technologies in the blade server arena, according to Fowler. Sun currently has a minimal presence in the blades market, which is dominated by products from Hewlett-Packard (HP) and IBM.

In designing the new servers, Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim and his team had the advantage of working on a "clean sheet" design, according to Sun executives. In talking to one major customer, Bechtolsheim discovered that power efficiency had become the customer's number-one criteria for purchasing new hardware, he said. Schwartz repeatedly harped on the high cost of oil -- US$70 per barrel -- having a major impact on electricity charges and hence driving up customers' costs in running computing infrastructure.

Sun claims the new Sun Fire servers have half the power consumption of competitive machines already on the market from Dell, HP and IBM, using publicly available specifications for the systems, according to Fowler. Sun also claims its new servers have one-and-a-half times the performance of rival offerings and are one quarter the size of their peers.

Customers have been able to order the new Sun Fire servers for some time and the machines are due to ship next month, according to Fowler. He revealed that Sun had 40 customer beta sites for the Galaxy servers, but he couldn't comment on the number of orders placed to date or speculate on the amount of machines Sun expects to ship in future. "We're preparing for Galaxy to be a volume purchase," Fowler said, while Schwartz quipped, "We hope AMD can keep up."

Schwartz claimed there was a myth in the industry that companies could only make a low profit on lower end servers. If you add in software and middleware sales around the servers, "there are fabulous profits to be made," he said.

Bechtolsheim said that Sun had worked closely with AMD to provide the maximum performance for its processors, a capability he claimed was only available from Sun. He added that Sun would start promoting many of the Spec performance benchmarks from the Standard Performance Evaluation. "This is the first time in Sun's history that we've made a 100 percent commitment to be in the [industry-standard server] market for a long time," Bechtolsheim said.

Sun's most recent industry-standard servers -- the Sun Fire V20z and the Sun Fire V40z released last year -- weren't clean-sheet designs, so while they offered some performance gains, they failed to provide any other advantages, according to Fowler. "We were late to the industry-standard server market, period," said Schwartz.

Industry-standard servers are based on Intel Corp.'s x86 instruction sets and the 64-bit derivatives of that technology such as the Opteron chips from AMD.

There was plenty of sniping at the competition, a favorite Sun pastime, although with this being a hardware launch, the targets were Dell, HP and IBM, not the company's major software foe, Microsoft.

Schwartz described Dell's servers as "slow, hot and huge," a theme taken up in Sun's new ads promoting the Galaxy servers which appeared online and in print Monday. Sun claims on its Web site that several business publications, including The Wall Street Journal, have refused to run its more outspoken ads that promote its "ass-whoopin'" technology and claim that its new servers are "100 percent more bitchin' than Dell."

The Sun chief executive officer also claimed that HP's HP-UX operating system was a "dead-end" since it only runs on Itanium hardware and that IBM's AIX Unix alternative "locks" user into Big Blue's proprietary Power processor.

There was also the obligatory film clip to play for laughs, showing a fictional customer in his office battling with his data center behind him. A building crew in the data center keeps expanding the headroom for the servers until the customer has no office left. The clip featured someone dressed up as in what was supposed to be an Intel bunny suit -- the protective clothing worn in the clean room where Intel chips are made -- trying to move a hot Dell server with a wooden pizza paddle.

Despite all this, Sun tried to preach a message of openness with some of its partners, notably Linux vendor Red Hat. "Stay tuned on the Sun/Red Hat relationship," said Schwartz. At one point in his presentation, Schwartz was joined onstage by executives from AMD, MySQL, Oracle and Red Hat, a combination he said would have been unthinkable a year ago.

Schwartz also provided some insight into how Sun reconciles being both a hardware vendor and a seller of an operating system, its Solaris flavor of Unix.

If you draw a Venn diagram of Sun's business with two circles representing its hardware and its software business, Schwartz said, "I'm uninterested in growing the intersection [combined sales of Sun hardware and software] in and of itself." Sun's strategy is to grow both of the hardware and software circles, he added. He sees the operating systems business as containing three players -- Sun's Solaris, Red Hat's Linux and Microsoft's Windows. For the first time, Sun will be offering full service-plan support for Microsoft's operating systems that run on the new Sun Fire servers, according to Fowler.

Sun's also keen to promote its idea of "pod" computing where a single server rack includes preconfigured computing, storage and networking components.

In a rather bizarre turn of events, Schwartz and Fowler put huge brightly colored skins on three racks and dubbed them "jPods" a la Apple Computer's iPod music player. They then proceeded to plug into headphones to the racks and dance to music for reasons that weren't entirely clear other than to suggest that the "jPods" could be consumer products.

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