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Sun's server gambit for Solaris

Sun Microsystems unveiled two new servers touting high performance, low power and low prices. Experts debate whether the move will bring new customers into the Solaris fold and turn around Sun's Unix fortunes.

Yesterday, Sun Microsystems Inc. rolled out the first servers based on its much-touted Niagara chip, officially called the UltraSparc T1 processor. These rack-mounted servers, the Sun Fire T1000 and T2000, feature a radical processor design that Sun hopes will turn around its losses in market share and technology leadership.

The rollout marks the second phase of Sun's server overhaul that began in September 2005 with theGalaxy line. Yesterday's announcement took place at Sun's fourth-quarter press event in New York City.

Sun officials have long hinted at the capabilities of the new processor, which features up to eight cores per chip and the ability to process multiple threads, allowing it to perform many tasks at once.

Competitors pointed out that in order for software to take full advantage of Sun's eight-core design, special programming considerations would have to be met. The analyst reaction to that statement was mixed.

Joyce Tompsett Becknell, a research director at Union City, Calif.-based Sageza Group, said this type of processor isn't necessarily the best choice for all applications, and that Sun has only ever understood how to sell to niches.

For more information:

Sun releases UltraSparc T1 chip

Sun retools Solaris

Gordon Haff, analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata said Sun may be responsible for painting itself into that niche, by initially portraying Niagara in a limited role.

On the other hand, Dave Reine, analyst with Wellesley, Mass.-based Clipper Group, wouldn't call these new machines niche servers at all. "It's a general purpose server and there are some niche markets it's not applicable for. They've reduced its floating point capabilities, but it's very low cost and high performance."

Sun said the multi-core design and multithreading capabilities will allow the server to be an eco-friendly alternative in the x86 space, offering high performance at low power consumption.

Reine said the eco-friendly message was something Sun picked up from chip vendors. Server manufacturers hadn't been touting energy efficiency numbers to date, and it's a differentiator for Sun.

"The continued build-out of the Internet has resulted in massive, inefficient server farms that run too hot and take up too much space," said David Yen, an executive vice president at Sun. "Given the extreme performance increase and low power consumption of our new Sun Fire servers, any company that has a Web, application or database server farm based on Intel Xeon servers needs to test the Sun Fire T1000 or T2000 servers immediately and see the unmatched price/performance and energy savings for themselves."

Sun is offering a "Try and Buy" program for customers to test the Sun Fire T1000 or T2000 free of charge for 60 days, with the option to purchase the system.

The 3.5-inch thick T2000 is currently available, with a starting price of $7,795 and a maximum cost of $25,995. The T1000, half as thick but lacking the T2000's fault-tolerant components, will arrive in March 2006, with prices ranging from $2,995 to $10,995.

Sun is touting wins across a number of performance benchmarks with these new machines, including a new metric Sun is calling SWaP, which stands for space, wattage and performance.

According to Sun, SWaP = performance/(space x power). Sun said the data used to populate the SWaP metric is publicly available:

  • Space can be measured by the rack unit height of the system; information found on a company's Web site.
  • Wattage: Metrics on the server's power consumption can be obtained using data from actual benchmark runs or vendor site planning guides, recorded in watts.
  • Performance: Information about the level of performance or throughput a server maintains can come from any industry-standard or independent software vendor benchmark.

    The new servers need the Solaris operating system to run, but Sun recently made a move to give the OS away for free. And the machines are priced to move. So if the Sun machines live up to the benchmarks, are they going to make a bunch of new Solaris customers?

    "That's basically what they're going for," Reine said. "Applications, support and services are where they're going to make money. It's like Gillette -- give away the razors to sell the blades. Even though I'm sure they're not losing money on the hardware."

    But unless someone sees a need for Unix, it's not likely to be a crossover product.

    "The availability of the applications that people want will really determine [the product's success]," said Sageza president Clay Ryder. "The underlying hardware is far less important or interesting than the business software that a company needs to operate. If the customer is not a Sun or Unix user, just having a cost-effective solution does not warrant retraining and change of corporate strategy."

    Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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