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Sun, Sparc struggle in economic downturn

With its Sparc systems, Sun Microsystems continues to fight the Unix battle -- despite a difficult economy that has been especially tough on Unix.

In 2004 the High Performance Computing Virtual Laboratory (HPCVL) made a two-phase deal with Sun Microsystems. The first stage was for some E25K servers, the Sparc-based machines Sun had just released. The second came due last year, when HPCVL installed eight M9000 servers co-developed by Sun and Fujitsu.

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Given the declining market share for Unix servers, and of Sparc-based servers in particular, some might wonder whether the HPCVL buy will be among the last of its kind. Indeed, even IT pros in the Sun camp wonder what the future holds for Sparc-based systems. Delays of the much-anticipated "Rock" chip, a 16-core chip labeled UltraSparc RK, didn't ease concern and seemed to push Sparc into the background. But according to analysts and users, Sun would be wise to stick with Sparc, and the indications are that it will do so.

"I think they'll continue on with their x86 product lines as well, but we're in discussions about new technology coming down the road. Certainly they've talked about the Rock chip. Everything I've seen looks to some plan of Sparc chips coming down the pipe," said Ken Edgecombe, HPCVL's executive director.

Delays in Unix processor deliveries have become common. Intel Itanium is well known for its delays, including the most recent, which pushed its quad-core chip back to later this year. While the Rock processor was supposed to be released at the end of 2008, it is now scheduled to be out the end of this year.

The x86 market has tended to eat away at the lower end of the Unix market.
Charles King,
analystPund-IT Inc.

This comes amid a slow decline in Unix server revenues documented by research firms including Gartner and IDC. The conventional wisdom is that Linux has eaten away at Unix share more than it's hurt Windows server numbers.

"The x86 market has tended to eat away at the lower end of the Unix market," said Charles King, the president of analyst firm Pund-IT Inc. "Owners of these older Unix installations are looking around and realizing the UltraSparc systems of five years ago could easily be taken over by current-day Intel and AMD machines."

Still, the Unix market remains large, with Unix machines accounting for more than one-third of server spending, according to research firm IDC. In addition, Unix's market share actually rose last quarter compared to the same quarter last year -- 36% over 33%. And it's an entrenched, loyal customer base.

Jean Bozman, IDC research vice president, said that "the share of total revenue shows continued investment in Unix servers, where customers have invested so deeply over the years to support mission-critical workloads."

How Sun fights the Unix decline
The Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc. likes to say that it gives customers options. Developed by Sun alone, the UltraSparc-based servers are known for their chip multithreading (CMT), a design that enables many users to tap into the same system simultaneously. Customers for these types of machines tend to be Web-based companies serving many online users at one time. Both Sun and Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Fujitsu sell Sparc64-based servers, and the latter designs the Sparc64 chip. This is a powerhouse chip meant for number-crunching and back-end enterprise resource planning applications.

"In these challenging economic times, we're trying to hold onto customers and give them the value they need, and look to gain new customers," said Shannon Elwell, Sun's director of enterprise servers. "The beauty of CMT and [Sparc64-based] MSeries is it offers customers choice."

Most customers end up going with a mix of the two. Such is the case with HPCVL, which has a cluster of Sparc64-based M9000s and a cluster of UltraSparc-based T5140s. Edgecombe said the M9000s were particularly attractive because of their memory capacity – each machine has 2 TB worth of memory, along with 64 processors. That was beneficial for HPCVL users doing computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modeling, which can consume up to 700 GB of RAM.

"And they're talking about expanding," Edgecombe said, chuckling.

But Sun also has a unique challenge. It has to face off against two major Unix competitors: IBM and HP.

Sun's issue is " being the No. 3 guy behind two juggernauts," said Clay Ryder, the president of analyst firm Sageza Group. "Part of the challenge they have with Sparc is they still have to maintain development and R&D expense for that platform. I don't think Sparc is sunk by any stretch, but it certainly has plenty of challenges."

Sun continues to fight, though, recently announcing a detailed comparison of its UltraSparc systems with IBM's Power servers.

Where's the Rock?
Last year Sun announced that it would delay release of its newest UltraSparc chip, code-named "Rock," until the end of 2009. Last month Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz said that the release was still on schedule. That came as good news for Sparc fans, who were concerned that a plummeting stock value and sizable layoffs could cause another delay.

"It's not a great time for Sun to be putting [R&D] money into Rock," said Pund-IT's King. "But I think it's critical that they make it happen."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer.

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