COMDEX : Sun to ship Opteron servers in 2004

Sun Microsystems Inc. plans to begin shipping in 2004 two new servers based on Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s (AMD) Opteron processors, Sun’s Chief Executive Officer Scott McNealy said during a Comdex keynote address in Las Vegas on Monday.

The servers, which were literally unveiled onstage at the end of McNealy’s keynote, are part of an alliance the companies have been planning for the past year, according to Neil Knox, Sun’s executive vice-president of volume systems products. Under terms of the agreement, Sun will work with AMD to produce a range of Opteron systems, beginning with two- and four-way servers that will begin shipping in 2004.

McNealy provided no details of the new Sun Fire servers, which are 1U (4.4 cm high) and 3U (13.3 cm) in size and which he and AMD CEO Hector Ruiz showed on stage. But McNealy did say that developers would be able to get early access to the new servers later this year.

The Sun endorsement is a major step for the 64-bit Opteron processor, said Ruiz. “It validates the fact that this technology is sound,” said McNealy, who is also Sun’s president and chairman.

Sun follows IBM Corp. as the second major server vendor to commit to selling Opteron systems, which AMD launched in April of this year.

While Sun may be ahead of competitors like Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. in embracing Opteron, McNealy admitted that Sun was late to the x86 (Intel instruction set) game. “We (missed out). I wish a heck of a long time ago we’d done the strategy we did with Intel,” he said, “That low end x86 product line is now the fastest-growing part of our computer product line in the data centre.”

Sun was not only late to market with x86 products, the company also precipitated a user revolt in January 2002, when it announced plans to terminate its Solaris for x86 operating system. Nine months later it reversed that decision.

With Monday’s announcement, McNealy argued that Sun was making its commitment to the x86 architecture clear. “We nailed this one on the button,” he said. “I think this will help our x86 sales because it says we’re serious.”

But the move to Opteron also raises questions about Sun’s other x86 products, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif. Sun’s one-way and two-way Sun Fire V60x and V65x servers, which are based on Intel’s Xeon processors, compete directly with the upcoming Opteron products, according to Brookwood. “It would seem to me that it would be in Sun’s interest to winnow the product line down,” he said.

Sun’s Knox said that while his company has no plans to develop new Xeon systems with more than two processors, it does intend to sell some follow-on Xeon systems. “We have got some customers who have adopted the Xeon platform and we’re fairly sensitive to whipping them back and forth,” he said.

Also during the keynote, McNealy announced an agreement between Sun and the China Standard Software Co. Ltd. to develop desktop computers based on Sun’s Linux-based Java Desktop System that could eventually see the software installed on hundreds of millions of computers in the People’s Republic of China, according to McNealy.

“We’re going to immediately roll out the Java Desktop System to between a half million and a million desktops in the coming year,” said McNealy. “This, I believe, makes us instantaneously the number one Linux desktop play in the planet.”

The China Standard Software is a consortium of Chinese government-supported companies set up to bring a Linux-based desktop to 200 million Chinese computer users, a target mandated by the Chinese government.

Sun hopes that the deal will be the first of a number of deals aimed at bringing the Java Desktop System to government agencies worldwide. “We’re out calling on every ministry of IT on the planet, so stay tuned,” McNealy said. “There should be some more interesting data there.”

Showing that Sun’s love affair with the network computer is still burning strong, McNealy also demonstrated the US$700 Sun Ray thin client desktop systems that he said Sun has used to shave millions of dollars off its own IT costs. Thanks to the Sun Rays, 13,000 Sun employees no longer have a dedicated office and a single administrator can manage two to three thousand desktops, he said. The company has also saved millions in power “by not having a Wintel space heater in each of our offices,” he said.

Sun researchers have developed a laptop version of the Sun Ray, which essentially consists of a display, keyboard and networking port, McNealy said. “Think of the battery life you’d get out of a Sun Ray laptop connected over Wi-Fi,” he said.