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Sun to double down on Niagara, ditch UltraSparcIII

Sun rolled out new low-end UltraSparc IIIi servers, dropping UltraSparc IIIi+ and announcing plans to drop UltraSparc III altogether.

Sun Microsystems Inc. rolled out a new line of low-end UltraSparc servers outfitted with the UltraSparc IIIi chip. The servers had been expected to ship with a new processor, the UltraSparc IIIi+, code-named Serrano, but Sun cancelled production on the project recently.

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In place of the new chip, Sun decided to boost performance on the existing processor with increased memory and throughput -- touting a 20% performance boost on the previous models.

The new sever models include:

  • The Sun Fire V215 is a one-rack unit box. It ships with one or two 1.5 GHz UltraSPARC IIIi processors and starts at $4,045.
  • The Sun Fire V245 takes up two rack units, shipping with one or two 1.5 GHz UltraSparc IIIi processors and starts at $4,595.
  • The Sun Fire V445 is a four-rack unit machine, shipping with two to four 1.6 GHz UltraSPARC IIIi processors and starts at $15,995.

    Users may be disappointed that the new line of servers didn't have the updated processor, but John Fowler, executive vice president of Sun's Systems Group, played it down.

    "Obviously more performance would be better," Fowler said on a conference call. "But people buy these products for different reasons. The UltraSparc III line has a really strong reputation for being bulletproof, it just doesn't go down."

    Sun opted to drop the Serrano processor in order to focus on development efforts on its Niagara line, Fowler said, which powers Sun's T1000 and T2000 servers.

    "Sun seems to be getting a lot of traction with Niagara, and frankly, it's a chip that was really designed for the low-end of the market anyway," said Charles King, analyst with Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research.

    Fowler also said that the Niagara processors would eventually replace the UltraSparc III line altogether. But he warned it would be a gradual transition. "UltraSparc III will be eclipsed by Niagara. But we're not going to leave any customers in the lurch," Fowler said, though he did not specify whether a new UltraSparcIIIi chip would be launched in the meantime.

    Analysts said it's a smart move for Sun, which has been struggling to boost profitability. "It costs a lot of money to maintain a processor platform," King said. "You can really save if you can standardize a chip."

    But is it a good move for users? Gordon Haff, analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc., had some concerns. "I think there will be a little transition messiness here. Nice as Niagara is, and as well as it's doing, it's not a direct replacement for the UltraSparc III line."

    According to Haff, the problems will show up when certain workloads demand heavier weight threads. The Niagara processor is designed for 32-thread multithreading, which allows it to execute multiple commands simultaneously. But this approach is not as beneficial in situations that demand more raw horsepower, an area where the UltraSparc III line had an advantage.

    But Haff said the next generation of chips would erode the differences between the two chips. Sun said servers based on the next generation Niagara processor will be available in the second half of 2007.

    Even if Sun manages to consolidate its UltraSparc line, it's still going to offer competing low-end server platforms. The company started offering Advanced Mirco Devices Inc. (AMD) Opteron-based Galaxy servers earlier this year -- and many believe that the UltraSparc and Opteron serve overlapping workloads.

    That raises the question of how Sun plans to differentiate workloads and product lines. But Warren Mootrey, senior director, volume Sparc systems, isn't worried.

    "It's not a challenge. It gives the customer more choice. Both the low-end Sparc and the Opteron business are booming," Mootrey wrote in a follow-up email.

    Haff said he sees some differences between the two platforms, but users are going to see both Niagaras and Opeterons on network-facing workloads. And ultimately, the decision between the two chip platforms won't have much to do with the actual technology.

    "A lot of times, a customer buys a server based on all kinds of other reasons -- like where they went to school, and what they used at their last company," Haff said.

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

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