Sun sets sights on Wintel with server releases

Sun Microsystems Inc. updated its range of entry-level servers on Monday. The company will introduce one product, the V880, aimed directly at competing systems based on Intel Corp. processors, and another built as an upgrade to its Netra server line and targeted at telecommunication companies.

Sun has been hit hard by a depressed hardware market and is feeling increased pressure to compete against cheaper Intel-based servers running either Microsoft Corp.’s Windows or the Linux operating system. Sun has traditionally been able to charge more for its servers based on the Solaris operating system due to the stability of its products and their 64-bit processing capability. But companies such as Dell Computer Corp. are beginning to roll out 64-bit servers of their own and have been able to keep costs down by using Microsoft Windows and Intel processors.

With the release of the V880, Sun looked to change some of these pricing traditions, offering a server that goes head-to-head with offerings from Dell. The V880 is sold as a two-, four- , six- or eight-processor system using 750MHz UltraSparc III chips, said John Davis, senior director of marketing for Sun’s midrange servers.

A two-processor server with 4GB of memory and six 36GB hard drives starts at US$29,995, while an eight-processor system with 32GB of memory and 12 36GB hard drives starts at US$119,995.

A Dell PowerEdge 7150 with four 733MHz 64-bit Itanium processors, 8GB of memory and four 36GB hard drives starts at US$42,658, according to information on Dell’s Web site. A similar V880 with four UltraSparc III processors at 750MHz, 8GB of memory and six 36GB hard drives starts at US$49,995.

Sun touted the V880 as a low-cost, Intel-competitive server – rather than an adapted PC – on a conference call held midday Monday.

“This is not a stretched PC, this is a true server,” said Neil Knox, vice-president and general manager, Volume Systems.

The V880 is coming at an especially good time, as it is a low-cost, but still relatively high performance system that will perform well for companies with shrinking IT budgets, Knox said.

With the V880, Sun “decided to stop beating around the bush and clearly take the battle to the Wintel (the combined Windows-Intel platform) environment,” he said. Further pushing Sun’s case, Knox also highlighted the security troubles servers running Microsoft’s IIS (Internet Information Server) have encountered in the last few months with worms such as Code Red and Nimda. Because Sun systems aren’t vulnerable to these kinds of worms, companies using the V880 will not have to spend money and time dealing with IIS-specific worms, he said.

In addition to the V880, Sun will also announce the Netra 20 – the first server in this line of servers based on the company’s latest UltraSparc III processor running at 750MHz. The Netra products are designed to handle the extreme temperatures and other requirements mandated by customers in the telecommunication and government sectors.

The Netra 20 uses the Sun Fire Plane interconnect technology, which links CPUs (central processing units), memory and storage devices at up to 4.8GB per second. A Netra 20 with one processor, 512M byes of memory and a 36GB hard drive starts at US$11,495, said Souheil Saliba, senior director of marketing for Sun’s volume systems products.

Sun’s move to lower prices on its low-end servers follows weaker than expected recent financial results, and subsequent layoffs. As Intel’s 64-bit Itanium chips mature and the Linux operating system continues to grow in popularity, Sun could face even more pressing challenges to its past success, according to industry analysts.

“We are having to compete much more aggressively in the low-end space,” Saliba said. “We are trying harder than we ever have before.”

Sun is looking to convince customers that its stable Solaris operating system coupled with 64-bit UltraSparc chips makes more sense than a similar Dell system with Windows and 32-bit Intel processors, but Dell is not buying the story.

“There are portions of the high-end market where we don’t compete with a Sun or IBM (Corp.), but I think I am really comfortable with the value we can provide customers on similar systems,” said Jim Mazzola, a spokesman at Dell.

Dell maintains an aggressive pricing structure and watches competitors closely, Mazzola said. He claims the growing maturity of Windows and Linux, along with Itanium, will continue to boost Dell’s server business.

Still, Sun is determined to compete on the low end and will offer customers assistance with migration away from the Microsoft platform as part of its V880 release.

The company hopes to convince customers that they can consolidate workloads running on several Intel-based servers onto one V880. In addition, it will offer consulting services on migration from Microsoft operating systems to Solaris and courses on clustering Sun servers, Davis said.

(Sam Costello, of the IDG News Service in Boston, contributed to this report.)

Sun, in Palo Alto, Calif., is at