Sun adds Opteron, boosts UltraSparc servers

Sun Microsystems Inc. unveiled its Opteron servers Tuesday along with new servers based on the latest edition of its UltraSPARC processor, as the company hopes to reverse its recent slide with new products and new technologies.

The company became the second major server vendor to release systems based on Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s (AMD’s) Opteron processor with the introduction of the Sun Fire V20z. It will be available in one-processor and two-processor configurations in April, said Neil Knox, executive vice-president for volume systems at Sun.

Sun also updated its Solaris servers with its UltraSparc IV processor, the company’s first multicore processor, said Clark Masters, executive vice-president of enterprise system products. Five new Sun Fire systems will sell alongside older UltraSparc III-based systems as they are rolled out over the next few months, he said.

The new servers represent both a new direction for Sun as well as an extension of the technology that made the company one of the world’s leading server vendors. Sun was alone among the major server vendors in the late 1990s in that it refused to release a server based on the x86 instruction set that runs Intel Corp.’s processors, concentrating instead on its powerful but expensive 64-bit servers that run its Solaris operating system.

However, as technology budgets shrank over the last few years, customers snapped up low-cost Intel servers from Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. The Unix server market stagnated while servers based on Microsoft Corp.’s Windows or Linux flew off shelves, and Sun was left with shrinking revenues and quarterly losses.

But of late, the Santa Clara, Calif., company has stepped up its pursuit of the x86 market with new rack and blade systems. At Comdex in November, it announced it would support AMD’s Opteron processor with the most complete line of Opteron servers planned by a major vendor to date, said Dirk Meyer, senior vice-president for computational products at AMD.

IBM also sells Opteron servers, but has focused mostly on the high-performance computing market with its eServer 325. Sun’s participation gives AMD a change to crack the corporate data center, a market in which it has little experience, said Jamie Gruener, senior analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston.

Opteron allows customers to run 32-bit and 64-bit applications on their servers, provided they have a 64-bit operating system. Sun ported Solaris to Opteron, and will also make Red Hat Inc. and SuSE Linux AG’s 64-bit versions of Linux available on the server, Knox said.

Most customers will probably choose to run Linux on the Opteron server, Gruener said. Linux is simpler and cheaper to maintain than Solaris, which has a lot of high-end features that won’t be necessary for these users, he said.

Further down the line, Sun might have to consider adopting Windows if it wants to seriously pursue this market, Gruener said. A Sun executive told IDG News Service in January that the company would certify its x86 products for Windows, but Knox said Sun is still evaluating whether to include Windows on its Opteron servers.

It’s pretty unlikely that Sun would go that route, said Jean Bozman, research vice president of IDC’s worldwide server group. The Linux server market is growing faster than either the Unix or Windows markets, and Sun will be content with tapping into that strong growth for now, she said.

A base configuration of the Sun Fire V20z costs US$2,795 with a single Opteron 242 processor, 1GB of PC2700 (333MHz) double data rate (DDR) synchronous dynamic RAM (SDRAM), a 36GB hard drive, a built-in Ultra320 SCSI controller, dual gigabit Ethernet slots, and two peripheral component interconnect – extended (PCI-X) slots. The server ships without an operating system, but both Linux and Solaris licenses are available for under US$300 from Sun.

Sun also announced the B200x blade server Tuesday. This server uses Intel’s Xeon processor in a 3U blade form factor, and prices start at US$3,790.

While the Opteron products are designed for application servers and Web servers, the new UltraSparc IV models are expected to do more heavy lifting. Databases and transaction processing are some of the areas in which customers use these servers, Masters said.

The new chip essentially is two UltraSparc III processors integrated onto a single die, Masters said. This almost doubled the performance of the new servers as compared to UltraSparc III servers when running applications like SAP AG’s management software and Oracle Corp.’s databases, he said. UltraSparc IV is also designed to work more efficiently with multiple software threads used by the Solaris operating system, Masters said. Customers can plug the new processors directly into their servers without having to reboot the server, he said.

Sun also improved the floating point performance of the new chip, Bozman said. This is an important step for the high-performance computing market, and will improve the performance of most business applications as well, she said.

The five new servers run the gamut from four-way servers to a system with 72 UltraSparc IV processors. They cost between US$98,955 and US$825,000, and will be rolled out over the next few months, Masters said.

Two other Sun Fire servers will be upgraded with faster UltraSparc III processors as of Tuesday, Sun also announced. The V210 and V240 now come with the 1.28GHz UltraSparc III processor and will cost less than the older versions with the 1GHz processor.

Tuesday’s announcement is one of the largest from Sun in recent years, and the timing is not coincidental, Bozman said.

“We all know that Sun has had tough times in recent quarters. We’ve arrived a point where the economy is turning up, and they’re appealing to their install base. IT managers are thinking about augmenting their systems, and Sun now supports three major hardware platforms,” she said.

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