Sun shines light on its blade servers

Sun Microsystems Inc. has decided to join the blade server fray, but users should not get too excited just yet because the company will not deliver a product until the later part of next year.

Blade servers have been a hot topic over the last few months with most of the major server vendors shedding light on their plans for the thin servers designed to save space and lower power costs. Every year companies manage to shrink the size of their server products, and the emerging blade technology appears to be taking this trend to a new level.

Hewlett-Packard Co. showed its line of blade servers Tuesday and will begin shipping products in volume in January. Other companies such as Dell Computer Corp., IBM Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. will also unveil their products in 2002.

Sun, however, has been unusually silent on the blade front until releasing a few details Tuesday about products the company plans to release possibly as late as December of next year.

“We won’t be the first; that’s true,” said Colin Fowles, director of the blade business team for Sun’s Volume System Products Group. “But we have been working on them and are at an advanced stage.”

With its first products, Sun will try to fit five processors in every 1U (1.75 inches or 4.45 centimeters) of server space. The company is looking to ship a 3U (5.25-inch) blade system that would house 15 processors, Fowles said. The company declined to provide any details on what type of processor its plans to use in the servers but is looking at versions of both its UltraSparc II and UltraSparc III 64-bit chips. Atlanta-based Racemi Inc. announced plans in September to build its own blade servers around the UltraSparc IIe processor.

Sun said it plans to beat HP on price by a “factor of two” per blade. HP began selling its server blades at US$1,925 with just one Pentium III 700MHz processor.

“To compete for service providers and enterprises on things like hosting, caching and security the cost and density has to much better than what HP has come out with,” Fowles said.

Fowles argued that HP’s new blade servers actually compete against Sun’s line of Netra products designed for the telecommunication market. Companies like Dell, IBM and Compaq will likely join Sun by packing as many processors as possible in the 3U space, he said.

Sun also hopes to come out with an interesting chassis design that will make it easy to swap blades out on-the-fly and that will help keep cables out of users’ way. The company plans to offer users some power saving features as well, Fowles said. Sun will look into technology developed by Infiniband supporters, as well as technology from the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG), for data transfer interfaces in the blades.

The systems will run Sun’s Solaris operating system – a popular flavor of Unix.

Sun is also looking to use some new technology it is developing with its iChange project.

The company designed iChange technology to help users deploy applications on both its traditional servers and its blades, Fowles said.

“iChange will manage application images and then move that image onto any kind of Sun server,” Fowles said.

Large companies keep a “repository” of applications they hope to deploy on servers over a period of time. These applications are usually larger, more complex groups of software, and getting them on to a server quickly can prove difficult. Using iChange, users would be able to schedule the delivery of applications onto various types of servers and get them up and running more quickly, Fowles said.

Users would also have more flexibility with regard to swapping applications onto different servers on the fly. They might, for example, tell certain servers to handle transaction software that is heavily used during the business day and then switch those servers over to do other tasks during other periods.

Sun, in Mountain View, Calif., is at