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Sun x86 servers turn heads: Too bad you can't get one

Users are impressed with Sun's foray into low-end hardware. But analysts and bloggers say the engineering-centric firm needs to improve logistics.

The commodity x86 server market has been dominated by Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), Dell Inc. and IBM in recent years, with Sun Microsystems Inc. trotting behind the pack, trying to keep up.

But Sun's competition should heed warning; Sun is gaining traction with users.

The dating Web site eHarmony announced Thursday that after trying Sun servers during a "buy and try" promotion, the company bought three Sun Firex64 (x86, 64-bit) servers to run the Oracle production database that services its 14 million plus registered users. .

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"Every action someone takes on our site is hitting our databases -- and those are running on Sun hardware," said Mark Douglas, vice president of technology at eHarmony.

Prior to using Sun, eHarmony used four processor, dual-core Dell 6800 series machines. Now it is running machines with eight processors, 16 cores from Sun, each with 64 GB of RAM, Douglas said.

"The power consumption was the absolute lowest we could find, and then we found the performance was outstanding," Douglas said.

Douglas was hesitant to quote benchmarks, afraid to violate company policies, but said Sun's server performance was "multiple of what we were getting on the Dell machines."

"The Dell hardware we had purchased earlier that year, so it wasn't like we were running Dell boxes from a few years ago," Douglas explained. "Also, we had a four processor Dell box, and we doubled the amount of processors with the Sun machines, but the performance jump was better than double."

All that performance didn't really come at a cost. "There used to be a premium attached to getting that many cores in a box," Douglas said, but these days, "the pricing is competitive."

Josh Clark, Unix systems administrator for Mobius Management Systems Inc. of Rye, N.Y., uses a combination of Sun SPARC and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) x64 boxes to develop the company's enterprise archiving and records management products, including the Sun Fire V490, 280R and Sun Blade x8400.

Mobius has also used HP servers, but Clark said he is a fan of Sun's low-end boxes now.

"On the SPARC side, (Sun) is the only gig in town, but for the x86's, we went with them not only because of our pre-existing relationship with Sun, but because of the price and performance. You can pack a ton of gigabytes into them," he said.

Sun's x86s are also extremely easy to work on, Clark said.

"The boxes are nicely engineered. Being a hardware guy, I notice how easy it is to swap out parts or put in cards," he explained. "On the (Sun Fire) T-2000, there is nothing in the way. It's very easy [to service] and getting better."

Douglas concedes, calling Sun "the only real hardware company doing engineering."

Nice server, if you can actually get one

Bob Gill, an InfoPro server sector analyst, said Sun's x86 server boxes are "impressive," but the company is lacking in the operations portion of the business.

"Sun is an engineering-first company. They are doing a good job of coming up with innovative ideas, but they are lacking in their logistics," Gill said. "Someone familiar with Sun on the SPARC side might order a (low-end) system and be disappointed because they want it in two weeks, but it won't be available for eight."

A number of prominent bloggers have expressed frustration with Sun's execution when it comes to delivering on the market demand it's creating, including:

  • Alexander Muse at the Texas Startup Blog
  • Matthew Mullenweg, founding developer of WordPress
  • Jason Hoffman at Joyeur.

    Despite this frustration, the company is growing into the x86 market.

    "Sun's (low-end boxes) are doing quite well, and a lot of customers clearly like them. At the same time, I would hesitate to call them "the" premiere low-end box maker," said Gordon Haff, principal IT analyst for Illuminata Inc. of Nashua, NH.

    "Much depends on what exactly a customer is looking for," Haff said. For example, even though Sun systems can run Windows, "Someone looking for a vendor partner for Windows servers would not typically go with Sun."

    The company's decision to use Intel Inc. chips should make Sun's servers more attractive to a broader range of users, including data center managers familiar with Sun SPARC who are leaning toward x86 technology.

    "Sun's partnership with AMD allow(s) the company to believably compete in the x86 market for the first time; a situation that should improve further as the recently announced partnership with Intel gains ground," said Pund-IT analyst Charles King, in a recent analyst report.

    Even without the Intel endorsement, Sun has become a worthy competitor in the low-end market by listening to what users want and delivering on performance, King said.

    Still, it could be a long while before Sun makes enough gains in the low-end market to rattle competitors' nerves.

    "The reality is, Sun has two huge adversaries in the x86 market, with HP and Dell, and a formidable competitor in IBM. People are looking to IBM's (eServer) X3 architecture for performance," King said. "Sun has a huge amount of ground to make up."

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

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