Sun soups up servers with faster chips

Sun Microsystems Inc. upped the processor speeds on its midrange server line Monday, hoping to offer users more computing power to handle complex applications.

Sun has already started using 900MHz UltraSparc III processors on its high-end Sun Fire 15K server and will now put the chips in all of its mid-range Sun Fire servers. The company claims the speedier copper-based processors increase performance levels up to 20 per cent over the previous midrange Sun Fire servers that came with 750MHz chips, Sun said in a statement.

The Sun Fire servers are used in various fields, such as business, education and science. Users in these segments often work with complex applications that require large amounts of computing power. The improved chip speeds should help improve application performance and data processing for these users.

Sun pours a great deal of resources into research and development for its UltraSparc processors, which are manufactured by Texas Instruments Inc. While the company constantly highlights the tight link between its processors, its Solaris operating system and its servers, it has fallen behind competitors with its chip performance, according to one industry analyst.

“Today, Sun is in the weakest performance position,” said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif., in an interview at a mid-October Microprocessor Forum event in San Jose, Calif.

Users looking for mid-range servers with 64-bit processors currently have several options to choose from. For example, IBM Corp. recently announced its p690 server which uses either 1.1GHz or 1.3GHz versions of the company’s Power4 processor. Hewlett-Packard Co. also makes its own 64-bit PA-RISC chips and recently announced its intention to standardize its server line on Intel Corp.’s 64-bit Itanium processors.

The intense competition, particularly as Itanium matures, could hurt Sun in the long run, Brookwood said.

Sun should begin using chips from other companies such as Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) in order to eliminate the heavy cost of in-house production, and pass on those savings to its customers, Brookwood said.

“Even if Sun can achieve performance parity, it will still have to develop what other companies can just buy,” Brookwood said.

Sun had already pushed the prices down on some of its lower-end servers to better compete with vendors selling Intel-based products, which should please Unix users. The same pricing pattern could follow two or three years down the line as Intel’s Itanium servers mature and can better compete against high-end Sun systems, Brookwood said.