Sun enters midmarket Unix segment

Looking to attack a midmarket for Unix servers previously untapped by the computer maker, Sun Microsystems Inc. on Tuesday introduced the Sun Fire 12000 (12K), a slimmed-down, modular, and upgradable version of Sun’s high-end Sun Fire 15000 “Starcat” server.

Designed to create a presence for Sun in the Unix server market for systems priced between US$500,000 and $1 million, the 12K is targeted at compute-intensive environments such as telcos, ISPs, data warehousing operations, government facilities and academics.

The 12K also counters this week’s preemptive strike at Sun by IBM Corp., which launched its own mid-range Unix server, the IBM p670, aimed right at Sun’s midrange server ambitions, according to IBM representatives.

An always confident Shahin Kahn, Sun’s chief competitive officer, said Sun has no fear in the face of rivals IBM or Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP).

“[The 12K] will slam the door shut in the face of [IBM’s] Regatta and [HP’s] Superdome,” Kahn said.

The 12K boasts a number of features formerly found only in Sun’s high-end Unix server systems, such as virtual system partitioning, triple redundant crossbar interconnects for faster internal I/O, and a modular CPU and memory board framework Sun has dubbed “uniboard.”

With uniboard architecture, which is similar in concept to modular, interchangeable server blades, the 12K not only offers hot-swappable and re-configurable CPU and memory boards, but can also be field upgraded to a Sun 15K by basically adding more uniboards, Kahn said.

Interchangeable uniboard architecture will eventually span all of Sun’s server offerings from individual server blades all the way up to the 15K and beyond, Kahn said.

“A uniboard today can be in a database server, in six months it could be an application server, then in a Web server, then in a file server, and have multiple personalities to its life before you are ready to retire it,” Kahn said. “We achieve economies of scale because we are using the same common components.”

Through uniboard architecture, the 12K can also be upgraded to run Sun’s UltraSparc 4 processors when they eventually arrive, Kahn said.

Current configurations of the 12K run 52 UltraSparc III chips, host as much as 288GB of memory, and offer 9 I/O hubs to the single SPM server. More than 125TB of direct attached storage can be supported by the 12K, which has an overall sustained bandwidth of 10.8GBps, according to Sun.

Nine separate, virtual server domains can be partitioned within the 12K. Partitioning allows user to run multiple, isolated applications or operating systems within the same server, maximizing the system’s overall horsepower.

Pricing is also a Unix server strategy for Sun. Timed with the 12K launch, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company dropped prices on a range of its Unix servers. High-end 15K servers fell in price by as much as 22 percent, while lower-end Unix servers were reduced by as much as 36 percent.

Sun competitors such as IBM, HP, and Compaq have each made significant inroads into Sun’s formerly dominate Unix server market share over the last 12 months to 18 months due to a leveling of the Unix technology playing field, according to Brad Day, a senior analyst at Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass.

“In the Unix space it’s been a cat fight for the last 12 to 18 months, and the reason being is from a technology, services, and ISV software application courtship point of view; it’s been a much more level playing field between HP, IBM, and Sun,” Day said. He added that three years ago Sun was the leader, with IBM and HP fighting to get on the short list. “Now everyone’s on the short list,” he said.

Vendor consolidation in the Unix server market created the short list of players, but Sun, the overall Unix leader, holds only a 22 percent share of the mid-range Unix server market, according to Ashok Kumar, an industry analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray, in Menlo Park, Calif.

“The Unix server market is fully consolidated with the top four vendors [Sun, IBM, Compaq, and HP] controlling an 85 percent of share versus 75 percent two years ago,” Kumar said. “Sun is the leading supplier of Unix-based servers with about 22 percent share of the mid-range – $100,000 to $1 million – server market.”

The 12K sets Sun in position to grow its share of the midrange server market, Day said.

“What the [12K] is all about is really to try and put Sun in a price band area that they really haven’t been in before, which is the $500,000 to $1 million dollar class of server systems. So they have really created a lower entry point to their highest end Starcat 15K,” Day said.

And although Big Blue made its move this week against Sun in the mid-range Unix server space, Day said that HP, with its mid-range RP8400 server, actually poses more of a roadblock for Sun in its effort to gain mid-range Unix server market share.

Recent market research by IDC, in Framingham, Mass., shows HP breathing down Sun’s neck in the race for overall Unix server market share. According to IDC, Sun holds a 28.8 per cent share of the Unix server market, with HP close behind with a 28.5 per cent share, followed by IBM with a 20.9 per cent share, and Compaq with a 7.5 per cent share.

Introduced Monday, IBM’s new p670 Unix server is designed to deliver many of the high-end features introduced with the company’s enterprise p690 – or Regatta – server last year. The p690 was publicly targeted at tackling Sun’s high-end Unix server domination, and Big Blue executives were not shy about their intent to drive the p670 into Sun’s mid-range Unix server market.

Similar to the p690, the p670 is the first IBM server in its class to host the company’s Power4 processors. The Power4 chips are IBM’s “server on a chip” processors that actually run two 1.1GHz chips on the same silicon. With as many as 4 PCI slots, the p670 server will be available in 4-, 8-, and 16-way processor configurations.