Sun using AMD chips to spark servers

Sun next week hopes to step up its position in the exploding low-end server market by introducing its Opteron-based Galaxy machines, with a focus on high performance, better cooling and advanced manageability.

At its quarterly news event in New York, Sun is expected to make a number of announcements, including the introduction of the first three Galaxy servers — the low-cost Sun Fire X2100 and the enterprise-class X4100 and X4200 (see graphic). The servers have been in the works since they were designed by Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, who returned to the computer maker when it acquired Kealia nearly two years ago.

The enterprise-class X4100 and X4200 servers will run at the fastest clock speed available with Opteron — 2.4-GHz dual-core and 2.8-GHz single-core processors – providing a 10 percent increase in performance over competing Opteron products, Sun executives say. Those CPUs have 120-watt heat output, compared with 95 watts for most Opteron systems, but Bechtolsheim’s design enables the 1U and 2U systems to handle the hotter processing.

For example, fans are easily swapped out if there is a problem.

“The most unreliable part in today’s computers are the fans,” a Sun spokeswoman says. “Unlike Galaxy, most systems overheat and crash when a fan stops. With Galaxy systems, the other fans simply increase in speed and continue as normal. . . . Swapping out a fan is very easy to do.”

In addition, the X4100 and X4200 include redundant power supplies and a service processor that makes remotely managing the servers easy, says John Fowler, executive vice president of the network systems group at Sun. Fowler says more Galaxy products will be coming in the months ahead, including an eight-way system and blade servers.

John Groenveld, associate research engineers at Penn State Applied Research Laboratory in State College, Pa., says he plans to take a close look at the Galaxy servers. The research lab runs six SPARC systems, as well as 20 Intel servers.

“Galaxy is exciting, because they’ll be Sun’s first in-house-designed systems,” Groenveld says. “I expect Andy Bechtolsheim will bring us some gee-whiz innovations.”

Analysts also are optimistic about Sun’s prospects with the new servers.

“It’s the first time Sun has actually sat down and designed a box using their own engineers and applying their own cleverness to an industry-standard-based system,” says Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. “In that regard, it’s clearly a major step forward. It demonstrates that even when you’re using industry-standard components, there are plenty of opportunities for suppliers to differentiate their products.”

At the same time, industry observers note that the Galaxy servers aren’t necessarily the game-changing products that Sun is portraying them to be.

“They’re certainly more competitive products than Sun’s previous Opteron-based solutions, but I look at this as Sun really establishing a near-parity position with the Intel architecture servers that are out there from Dell, HP and IBM,” says John Enck, a research vice president at Gartner.

The challenge for Sun will be to break into a market, where it doesn’t even rank in Gartner forecasts. IDC lists Sun as holding nearly 9 percent of the US$23.4 billion x86 market in 2004, behind IBM, with 17 percent; Dell, with 20 percent; and HP, with 32 percent.

In addition, Sun likely will focus on selling Solaris on these systems, another challenge in the x86 market, where Linux and Windows dominate. Sun is tightening its relationship with Microsoft, however, and plans to announce Sun Systems Service Plans for the Windows operating system, providing hardware and Windows support for Sun Fire customers.

The company is hoping the Galaxy servers will be the key to turning its fortunes around. Sun has been struggling after the dot-com boom, when the high-flying sales of its proprietary SPARC systems took a nose dive. While corporate buyers turned to lower-priced commodity systems from HP, IBM and Dell, Sun was slow to embrace industry-standard systems.

It introduced its first Intel-based boxes in 2003, and later that year announced a wide-ranging partnership with AMD to sell Opteron-based systems. The server maker introduced its first Opteron systems last year, the v20z and the v40z.

Further, Sun is trying to shore up its position in the storage market.

Acquiring tape-automation and information life-cycle management company StorageTek last month, a series of strategic acquisitions and the availability of several new storage arrays, tape libraries and storage software should do it.

Among the expected announcements are the introduction of the Sun StorEdge 5310 NAS Appliance Gateway, the StorEdge 3320 SCSI array and two StorEdge Capacity-Series Tape Libraries. The company also announced that it has enhanced its StorEdge Enterprise Storage Manager 4 and StorEdge Data Replicator software to support the new Galaxy servers.

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