Sun heats up thin server market

Anticipating a major leap in the appliance server market, Sun Microsystems Inc. is stepping up to the plate with products that are primarily aimed at service providers.

Sun recently released a new strategy for server appliances that involves extensions to its line of Sun Netra rack-optimized thin servers. This development adds to Sun’s earlier move that saw it acquire network appliance server manufacturer Cobalt Networks Inc. late last year. Sun is hoping these moves will provide end-to-end solutions to service providers and corporate users looking to build out their Internet data centres.

According to Eric Lawrence, director of product sales for Sun Microsystems Canada, part of Sun’s long-term vision is to solve three major challenges for the industry. Calling these challenges the “Three Big Bets,” Lawrence explained that the first area to address is the growing demand for massive scale. The second “Bet” is the implementation of the integrated stack, what Lawrence describes as a “pre-tested, certified, plug-in-and-go” solution. Last on the list is addressing the reality of e-business.

“If you look at how Cobalt fit in, we are putting significant energy and effort into realizing these ‘Big Bets,'” Lawrence said. “The Cobalt acquisition really puts the end user front and centre in terms of how they want to use the technology.”

According to Greg Ambrose, research analyst for IDC Canada in Toronto, in Sun’s case with the Cobalt boxes, they are looking at appliance servers, which they didn’t offer before.

“It is just a way of increasing the market share and getting in earlier with these companies, especially start-up service providers,” Ambrose said.

Lawrence said that another part of Sun’s appliance strategy was to develop an appliance that is more customizable and more function-specific, which he said describes Sun’s Netra line of servers.

Recently added to the Netra line is the Netra 1X server, a rack-mountable 1 RU server powered by the Solaris 8 operating environment. It supports up to 1 GB of memory capacity. Priced at a measly US$995, Sun said the Netra 1X is an alternative to low-end Wintel machines.

According to IDC, the appliance server market is expected to jump from US$740 million in 1999 to an estimated US$15 billion by 2004.

Ambrose offered a possible explanation for the dramatic change in the market.

“The small businesses are increasingly coming on-line,” Ambrose said. “We are talking about business-to-consumer e-commerce growing by 50 per cent a year going forward. That is going to pale in comparison to the huge growth in business-to-business e-commerce. You are going to need people to handle all this increasing traffic.”

Ambrose also noted a strong trend toward outsourcing, namely storage. He said service providers will begin to specialize in different areas.

Sun has also recently released the Sun Cobalt CacheRaQ 4, an appliance based on Cobalt’s thin-server technology that is powered by a 450-MHz Intel compatible processor. Sun said the CacheRaQ 4 increases network response time by providing local storage of content at the service provider or the end-user’s site, and stores copies of recently requested Web documents locally, saving bandwidth resources.

As well, Sun released a more robust Web server, the Sun Cobalt RaQ XTR, which runs Linux and the Apache Web server. The RaQ XTR features up to four removable hard disk drives, 733MHz or 933MHz processors, up to 2GB of memory and comes pre-configured with 128-bit Secure Sockets Layer.

Ambrose said that in order to secure a hefty chunk of the growing appliance server market, Sun will have to establish brand loyalty to compete with other companies like Compaq and Hewlett-Packard, who also have their sights set on this space.

“Sun should do very well in terms of being able to offer a full assortment of things,” Ambrose said. “Cobalt was a key acquisition.”

Lawrence said Sun has an advantage because its strategy is clear.

“We believe the network is central to everything,” Lawrence said. “We believe in open standards and freedom for the users. We are doing something well and we stick to our game plan and I think our results speak for themselves.”

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