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Sun's first Intel server will be a blade

The first fruits of the Sun/Intel partnership will be an Intel Xeon blade server, followed by rack mount models, Sun revealed

The first Intel-based Sun product will be a blade server, and is expected to be released the first half of this year, has learned.

According to David Simmons, Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq:SUNW) director of x64 products, Sun's Intel Corp. (Nasdaq:INTC) blade server will be followed by two- and four-socket rack-mount server models. Simmons said Sun also had other Intel-based products that are in the works.

Sun and Intel formed an alliance in January, centered on Sun's commitment to deliver a family of enterprise and telecommunications servers, and workstations based on Intel Xeon processors, as well as Intel's endorsement of the Solaris operating system.

The company shunned blade servers after a failed effort in 2003, the Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) Athlon-based Sun Fire B100 blade server, but reentered the blade market last year.

"We thought the initial blade offerings were compromised in memory and with embedded switches. The servers just weren't comparable," Simmons said. "We started our blade from scratch and came up with a product we are happy with."

Sun announced its Netra ATCA blade server based on UltraSparc in April 2006. The company then announced its Sun Blade 8000 Modular System last summer and followed up with the AMD Opteron-based X8420 server module in January of this year. These blades deliver up to 16 times the throughput of traditional blade servers, Sun claims, with each chassis holding up to 10 Sun Blade X8400 and X8420 servers.

On the SPARC side, Sun is planning to release a SPARC blade, and 14-rack and 10-rack unit versions of blade servers, Simmons said, as well as lower cost blade offerings that would not be detailed by Sun.

 Intel can help Sun get a (blade) product to market much faster than Sun could do it on their own.
Matt Eastwood
vice president of enterprise server researchIDC

It's Sun Fire B1600 Blade System Chassis, for instance, is a 16-slot, 3U chassis.

Blade turnaround

Joe Clabby of Clabby Analytics said Sun's blade offerings are good -- now.

"Sun entered the blade business and then withdrew a few years back, bad design. Sun reentered (the blade market) last year with good design," Clabby said. "Sun builds really good AMD implementations and gets excellent performance from them, so their blade reflects this."

Clabby said Sun's decision to offer Intel products -- "now that Intel has caught up with AMD in performance" -- is wise from a market standpoint, and other analysts agree.

"If their first Intel product is a blade product, I would think it would be driven by a need to move downmarket somewhat. Not so much that Intel technology is downmarket in nature, far from it, but rather Intel can help Sun get a product to market much faster than Sun could do it on their own," said Matt Eastwood, vice president of enterprise server research at IDC.

"Sun did re-enter the blades market last summer with products designed for extreme enterprise needs -- significant throughput, I/O and memory capabilities," Eastwood said. "The midmarket is the fastest growing blade segment and its needs are somewhat different than the enterprise."

The blade market is a two horse race right now with IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) comprising 80% of the market, Eastwood said.

Sun's blade agenda is being pushed now that it has a competitive blade product with significant throughput, I/O and memory; but it has ground to make up after coming to the blade market late in the game.

"Sun's lateness to market doesn't put them in the top three in blades. It will take them years to make it up there," Clabby said.

Clabby, meanwhile, is skeptical of Sun's blade agenda.

"Sun told me that one of their objectives was to drive blade form-factor standards. Ain't gonna happen. Vendors differentiate within their enclosures (chassis) -- and hence, standardized blades ain't part of the picture. Besides, who do you call when the chassis is from one vendor and the blade is from another?" Clabby said.

AMD Opteron transition

At the same time, Sun has transitioned its Galaxy boxes from the Rev E Opteron chips over to AMD's new Opteron Rev F chips.

Rev Es have an integrated DDR1 main memory controller on the chip. The Rev F chips, on the other hand, have a completely different processor socket and support DDR2 main memory, which contribute to more efficient memory operations.

In addition to DDR2 memory support, the Rev F chips will maintain constant electrical and thermal boundaries as it moves from dual-core to quad-core later this year.

AMD's Rev F chips also allow the Solaris Xen hypervisor to run native Windows. "We can run Linux, Xen and Solaris with the old processors, but not able to run Windows. We need (Rev F) hardware to run Windows, as well," Kay said.

All of Sun's rack-mount servers are currently available with AMD's Rev. F processor, which is enabled with virtualization features at the CPU level.

Sun embraces virtualization

Sun isn't discouraged by the virtualization trend that analysts blame for a slowing server market, saying Internet-based companies, like and, are continually demanding new servers.

"The speed of processors and virtualization appears to be shrinking out core data center market because it is reducing the need for servers, but there are folks still buying them," Simmons said. "The group that is underserved is the new commerce businesses, like They can't get enough computing power and are outgrowing their data centers. These types of companies will continue to drive the Web-based application space and will continue to need more and more servers."

Nevertheless, Sun is embracing the virtualization trend, working with the technology and designing products that are "ideal" for virtualization, said Tony Kay, Sun's systems virtualization manager.

"We have looked at virtualization as a strategic area, viewing it holistically. We are investing in our Solaris with Xen software, and we can virtualize at all levels -- the systems level, processors and servers, and make them all work together," Kay said.

All of Sun's x64 servers support two forms of virtualization: Solaris Containers and VMware for Linux and Windows virtual machines, said Sun's Simmons.

"The X4600 is especially well suited for virtualization since you get eight sockets, up to 16 cores (growing to 32 shortly) and can support several virtual machines per core. 128 GB of memory on X4600 is also well suited for virtualization," Simmons said.

Sun claims its Sun Fire X4200 M2 server, and the soon-to-be-released Sun Fire X4600 M2 server, are model platforms for virtualization because of the amount of virtual machines those boxes can host.

"Looking at the number of virtual machines that can be placed on this system, this one box enables major consolidation," Simmons said. "Our platforms are designed for virtualization applications."

Sun is a certified VMware reseller and runs VMware on all of its x64 and x86 servers, in addition to offering its own server virtualization and partitioning technology called Logical Domains for servers with its CoolThreads technology in Sun Fire T1000 and T2000 servers.

"End users are becoming more sophisticated. Where VMware used to mean virtualization, there are alternatives now. There has been a lot of development, competition, and costs are going down," Kay said.

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

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