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Sun pins hopes on Cherrystone servers

The server maker plans on Tuesday to announce its long-awaited four-processor "Cherrystone" server, a key product in the company's effort to stave off Intel-based competition.

Sun Microsystems plans to announce Tuesday its long-awaited four-processor "Cherrystone" server, a key product in the company's effort to stave off Intel-based competition.

As earlier reported, the Sun Fire V480, with up to four 900MHz UltraSparc III processors, is a little brother to the V880, an eight-processor system that has proved extremely successful for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company.

Sun faces competitive pressure from IBM and Hewlett-Packard in midrange and high-end Unix servers, but it dominates in lower-end machines. In that segment of the market, however, Sun has competition from Intel servers running Windows and Linux; the V480 is aimed at keeping those rivals at bay.

The V480 is a replacement to the UltraSparc II-based 450, which ranges in price from $18,695 to $52,195. The V480, a rack-mountable product, will cost somewhat more, starting at $22,995 for a two-processor server with 4GB of memory, said Warren Mootery, director of Sun's product marketing for volume systems.

"We positioned it specifically against four-way servers with 1.6GHz (Intel) Xeons," Mootery said. A V480 with 4GB of memory and two of its four-processor slots full costs less than four-processor-capable Xeon servers from Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard or IBM with two processors installed, the same amount of memory, and Microsoft's Windows 2000 Advanced Server operating system, he said.

However, Sun's prices go up steeply. A four-processor server with 16GB of memory costs $46,995, and a four-processor model with 32GB of memory goes for $99,995.

Sun also will sell V480s bundled with its T3 midrange storage products. Those products range in price from $44,595 to $122,995, Mootery said.

Also Tuesday, IBM will announce that it's shipped its 1,000th top-end p690 "Regatta" Unix server, which went on sale about six months ago and typically costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Spiegel Group--which runs retailers including Eddie Bauer, Newport News and Spiegel Catalog--bought the p690 to replace 15 non-IBM servers.

Sun has released numerous servers based on its newer UltraSparc III processor, but the four-processor Cherrystone system is arriving later than hoped. When Sun debuted its first UltraSparc III systems more than 20 months ago, executives said the entire UltraSparc III line would be on sale within a year.

Also planned for Tuesday, Sun will bring its faster 900MHz UltraSparc III processors to the V880, which previously used the earlier 750MHz processors, Mootery said. The 900MHz V880s already are for sale on Sun's Web site.

To deal with a recent spending slowdown, Sun has laid off staff and is shutting down for a mandatory vacation the week of July 4, a step it took in 2001 as well. The company has stood by its plan to return to profitability this quarter.

Sun's systems use 64-bit processors, a major advantage when running large databases. Intel hopes its 64-bit Itanium line will help address this weakness in its product line. Its first-generation Itanium systems weren't a serious factor in the market, but Intel hopes that Itanium 2 systems coming later this summer will prove more successful.

A four-processor Itanium 2 system will cost about $41,000 with 8GB of memory, said Vaughn Mackie, enterprise platform marketing manager at Intel, speaking at a media event Friday.

Sun sells two categories of UltraSparc III servers. The "volume" systems use components and manufacturing methods drawn from the larger world of Intel servers, whereas higher-end systems all are based on Sun "Uniboards," four-processor building blocks that can be assembled into everything from eight-processor Sun Fire 3800 systems to 72-processor Sun Fire 15K "Starcat" systems.

Processors aren't the only point of comparison when pitting Intel servers against Sun servers. Also important are reliability features, software availability, high-speed cache memory, and input-output systems. V480 comes with PCI slots for plugging in network cards or interfaces to storage systems, a slower standard than the PCI-X now shipping with Intel servers.

"We didn't incorporate PCI-X. We're looking at it, but we're not sure if we're going to go that route," Mootery said. "We have pretty good throughput."

While PCI is adequate for today's workloads, the future likely will tell a different story, said Cary Snyder, an independent analyst who monitors system technology such as PCI.

For one thing, coming 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet and Fibre Channel networking standards will consume huge amounts of data-transfer capacity. In addition, special-purpose chips to speed up networking means that regular processors will have more power left over to fill up data-transfer pathways.