Server users ponder Sun's hardware future

With reports that Sun Microsystems' next-generation processor has been axed, what does the fate of UltraSparc mean for the rest of Sun's server hardware?

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If reports this week that Sun Microsystems killed development on its next-generation UltraSparc processor are true, the news could be an omen for the rest of Sun's hardware technology as Oracle's takeover of the company nears.

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Under development for five years, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s 16-core "Rock" processor was due to ship last year but was delayed because of glitches, according to reports. Millions of research and development dollars later, that the Rock project was reportedly canceled, just as Sun is about to come under the ownership of software giant Oracle Corp.

The question of whether the Rock project termination is related to the Oracle acquisition is at the top of IT pros' minds, but many Sun shops are confident that the company's hardware business will survive the Oracle Corp.'s takeover.

Does dead Rock mean no Sun hardware?
Some predict Oracle will retain the hardware business, which includes high-end and x86 servers and processors such as Sparc. Oracle president Charles Phillips said when the deal was announced that the combined company might delve into specialized hardware-software appliances for vertical markets. But this decision would hinge on the value of Sun's software businesses.

Others think Oracle will sell off Sun's entire hardware business to a company like Fujitsu Ltd. -- rumors to that effect were flying at the HP Technology Forum in Las Vegas this week.

Sun server user Mathew Leeds, the vice president of IT operations for the music-sharing website Gracenote.com, said the Rock cancellation does not ignite concerns about the rest of Sun's hardware.

"The Sparc chip is not the totality of Sun hardware. Of the several hundred Sun servers we operate, a handful are Sparc, the rest are Opteron. Both Intel and AMD have roadmaps that bode well for future Sun x86 servers," Leeds said. "The market for very large mainframe-type server platforms [that use Sparc processors] is small and, I suspect, shrinking."

"I wouldn't read too much of Oracle's hand into this apparent decision," Illuminata Inc. analyst Gordon Haff concurred. "Under different circumstances might Sun have stuck it out? Possibly. But this project has been significantly delayed and that's often the kiss of death to microprocessors where time equals performance. It was a very ambitious design about which Sun made outsized promises.

Still, doubt lingers. "Sun has done a great job of putting out hardware for every niche, but will Oracle look at that as an efficient business plan? I don't know," he said. "Oracle is an annuity business, they are all about that 22% cost for licensing and support. That is their revenue stream. Any company that sells hardware also offers support, so Oracle will get that annuity stream."

Sun's server designs deliver enough value to customers to make the hardware valuable to Oracle.

"I suspect that a study of the relative in-operation life of Sun hardware would show that Sun servers stay in operation longer, and generally stay under maintenance contracts longer," Leeds said. "This is the annuity revenue model that Oracle is already based on. Ellison's comments about the value of a combined hardware/OS/software product stack from a single vendor pretty much ensures that Sun will continue to produce hardware as part of Oracle. Sun has a great story on servers, and an ever-improving story on storage."

But Sun server and Solaris user David Reynolds, a systems manager at the Rhode Island Blood Center in Providence, R.I., said Sun hardware users have nothing to fear. "Everyone is panicked about buying Sun hardware. Just my opinion, but I say you are crazy if you think the Sun Sparc hardware platform running Oracle databases is going anywhere," Reynolds said. "It has been and still is a staple in the industry as far as stability goes, and I don't see that changing anytime soon."

Reynolds said the pending acquisition should benefit Oracle and Sun customers alike. "Why would Larry Ellison buy Sun other than … to harness the resources of a company that knows the hardware side as well as Oracle knows the software side?" Reynolds said. "It is the perfect marriage and I think we can all look forward to reaping the benefits of that deal."

Oracle watchers predict Sun hardware sell-off
Conversely, an executive from a large West-coast based Oracle and Sun software partner said she expects Oracle to sell Sun's hardware business, which appeared to have fallen out of Oracle's favor in recent years.

Sun Solaris running on Sparcstations was the benchmark platform for Oracle databases for year. But, for the past few years, Oracle has flip-flopped on its hardware vendor preference, she said. "One year it was Dell; the next HP. Now all those customers want to know if Sun will be the go-to hardware vendor again."

Oracle has also pushed its customers to use Linux. A few years ago,. Oracle even launched its own flavor: Unbreakable Linux.

Leeds said he doesn't have a plan B should Sun stop building servers, but since he runs Sun's x86 platform, transitioning to another vendor wouldn't be too difficult. "Should they stop producing Sun hardware, we would look to other vendors of x86 servers who offer x86 Solaris on their hardware. Fortunately over the past few years, more hardware vendors have seen the value in Solaris and offer it as an option with their hardware," Leeds said.

Barbara Darrow contributed to this report.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

And check out our data center blogs: Server Farming, Mainframe Propellerhead and Data Center Facilities Pro

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