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Sun likely to use AMD's Opteron chip

Sun is testing Advanced Micro Devices' forthcoming Opteron chip for servers, and execs say Sun-branded machines using AMD and Intel chips will become more prominent.

Sun Microsystems will likely adopt the Opteron processor from Advanced Micro Devices as it extends into new branches of the server market.
Learn more about Sun's plans

Menlo Park, Calif.-based Sun has been testing the forthcoming Opteron chip for servers in its labs, and has found interest for the chip among customers, said John Loiacono, vice president of Sun's operating platforms group. Although he couldn't commit to any definite product plans, Loiacono said that the chip, which comes out April 22, would probably end up in a Sun product.

"Can we commit to using Opteron today? No," Loiacono said. "Can we use it? Are we likely to use it? Yes."

The probable endorsement from Sun is one of the strongest yet for the upcoming chip. Although RackSaver and a host of second-tier manufacturers have come out with product plans, no large manufacturer has done so yet. AMD declined to comment.

Sun's guarded optimism for the chip is a good sign for AMD, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst for Mercury Research. Opteron is designed for servers running up to eight processors, and that market is still largely controlled by the small circle of multinational computer makers. These manufacturers, moreover, tend to be fairly conservative when it comes to new technology.

"If you can get a Sun or IBM interested, that is crucial," he said. Virtually all of the major manufacturers are testing Opteron, according to Jack Steeg, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Newisys, which is licensing designs for Opteron servers.

According to Sun executives speaking at the company's quarterly product update, Sun-branded servers containing so-called x86 chips from AMD or Intel will also occupy a more prominent place in the company's overall product line, which is currently dominated by servers running Sun's own UltraSparc chip.

"You will hear a lot about Solaris x86. There are over 1,000 applications on Solaris x86," said Sun CEO Scott McNealy, referring to the version of Sun's operating system that's tweaked to run on servers containing Intel and AMD chips.

Sun, in fact, will update its LX50 server, which is designed for x86 chips, in the very near future, company executives have said. Although Opteron comes out in two weeks, Loiacono cautioned against drawing too strong a connection between the Opteron release and the pending update to the LX50. The chip requires a completely new motherboard. Sun is also working on other AMD chips.

Change of heart
The fairly buoyant endorsement of technology from the PC world represents something of a change at Sun. The company has engaged in a heated battle for years with Intel, deriding the performance of servers based on Pentium chips and mocking, whenever possible, the sales of the Itanium processor.

A year ago, Sun deferred "productization" of a version of Solaris for Intel servers. Intel, for its part, has repeatedly noted how servers containing RISC-based chips, like Sun's UltraSparc, have become a smaller part of the overall server market.

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The shift appears to derive from equal doses of opportunity and desperation.

On the opportunity side, Sun is positioning itself as a complete technology provider that will earn profits from sales of hardware, software and services.

Intel- or AMD-based servers from Sun will be outfitted with Solaris and a variety of server applications, McNealy said. Even if these typically less-expensive servers don't carry the same margins as Sun's UltraSparc boxes, they will serve as vehicles to sell Sun software.

The company is kicking off a Chinese menu-style licensing program called Orion to beef up software sales.

"They (Sun) are making a bigger commitment to supporting other platforms, and what is the best way to do that? By having Linux or x86 in-house," said Kevin Krewell, senior editor at the Microprocessor Report.

Additionally, the growth of the Linux operating system has made Intel- and AMD-based servers from Sun more palatable to some corporate buyers. In the past, these servers mostly came with Windows, making the Sun x86 boxes seem like oddities.

"All of the sudden it is OK to (put) something other than Windows" on these machines, said Mark Tolliver, executive vice president of marketing and strategy at Sun. "The physics of the whole Intel market has begun to shift."

Sun's decision to sell an Intel-based server, the LX50, under its own brand has also helped build momentum. "For some reason, it (putting the brand name on the product) adds more credibility," Tolliver said.

Sun is also holding negotiations with other PC makers on selling Intel/AMD-based servers running Solaris for x86. These discussions have occurred on a regular basis for years, but "the volume of conversations has stepped up a bit," Tolliver said.

Opportunity aside, Sun's move is also an outgrowth of necessity, according to IDC analyst Jean Bozman. Financial institutions and life sciences companies, two strong markets for Sun, already buy lots of Linux servers running Intel or AMD chips. Holding out would mean losing sales.

"It is pragmatic," Bozman said. "These guys are gobbling up (Linux servers) like there is no tomorrow."

Still, Sun won't overtly exert itself in this regard. The company, for instance, will rely on Asian contract manufacturers to design and manufacture Sun's x86 boxes.

"We are not going to be in the x86 design business," Tolliver said.

Sun execs also continue to pan Intel's Itanium chip.

"I'd bet on Opteron before I'd bet on Itanium," McNealy said in an interview Monday.