Sun revamps Unix servers with UltraSparc IV+

The UltraSparc IV+ processor will double the performance of Sun's Unix servers. The chip, however, soon will face competition.

Sun Microsystems on Tuesday revamped its mainstay Unix servers with the new UltraSparc IV+ processor, a chip that doubles server performance but that soon will face new competitors.

As first reported by CNET, the UltraSparc IV+, code-named Panther, will be run at 1.5GHz and be available in midrange models ranging from the four-processor V490 to the 24-processor E6900. Those systems have been the bread and butter of Sun's business, but also a market segment under fierce attack by IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

Sun last year had said it expected the dual-core chip to arrive at 1.8GHz. That clock speed still is expected, but now not until the first half of 2006, said Fred Kohout, vice president of marketing for Sun's Scalable Systems Group, which sells Sun's UltraSparc-based servers.

Competitors are arriving soon, though. IBM's Power5+ and Intel's dual-core "Montecito" version of Itanium both are expected this year, though Kohout dismissed the latter chip family as "going nowhere."

Boosting Unix server sales is an urgent issue for Sun. In the second quarter of 2005, the Unix server market grew 6.6 percent to $4.2 billion, according to Gartner, but Sun's share of that market dropped from 38 percent to 33 percent. HP was level at 29 percent, but IBM grew from 23 percent to 28 percent.

Sun is keeping prices unchanged for systems using the new chip. At the cheapest end, a V490 with dual UltraSparc IV+ processors and 8GB of memory costs about $31,000; an E6900 with 24 processors and 96GB of memory lists for $1.1 million.

More UltraSparc moves are expected soon as Sun aims to keep the processor family vital in the face of market share declines. For one thing, the UltraSparc IV+ will be brought to the top-end 36-processor E15k and 72-processor E25K servers "in the not-too-distant future," Kohout said.

For another, Sun will bring the single-core UltraSparc IIIi+ to its lower-end Unix servers. Like the IV+, the IIIi+ is built by Texas Instruments with a newer manufacturing process that permits 90-nanometer features instead of the 130-nanometer process for the UltraSparc IV and IIIi. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.

Also in coming months, Sun expects to introduce its first servers using "Niagara," a processor whose eight cores can run a total of 32 instruction sequences, or threads. Two systems are expected, the 1.75-inch-thick "Erie" systems and the 3.5-inch-thick "Ontario" systems, designs that share the same enclosure as Sun's X4100 and X4200 "Galaxy" line of x86 servers, respectively.

The UltraSparc IV+ models run Sun's Solaris version of the Unix operating system, but only version 9 or the new version 10.

Sun decided to coax customers toward the newer operating systems for business reasons, not technical reasons, said Bob McGaughey, director of product management for UltraSparc IV and IV+. "We'd like people to move forward to Solaris 10. Solaris 8 very likely will come to end of life in a short period of time," he said.

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