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Low-cost Sun computers coming

To counter the growth of Windows NT workstations, Sun will release two workstations that combine new processor technology and low prices.

To counter the growing popularity of Windows NT workstations, Sun Microsystems (SUNW) will release two workstations next month that combine new processor technology and low prices.

The Ultra 5 and the Ultra 10 workstations will comprise Sun's new beachhead in the low-cost arena. The Ultra 5 is expected to cost less than $5,000 and contain one processor, said sources close to Sun. The Ultra 10 will cost under $10, 000 but contain two processors. Earlier, the Ultra 5 was code-named Darwin.

The workstations are expected to be built around the "integrated" UltraSparc-II(i) processor modules, said various sources. These combine a 64-bit UltraSparc processor with other functions such as a memory controller onto a single piece of silicon, said a Sun spokesman. The UltraSparc-II(i) processor runs at 270 MHz and contains a 66-MHz PCI (peripheral connect interface) bus, according to Sun's Web site.

"It's aimed at mid-range workstations," said Linley Gwennap, editor-in-chief of The Microprocessor Report. "HP has a similar integrated part in their workstations."

Integrating components in this manner is expected to lower costs, and also increase availability of parts, Sun has said.

Although the company has traditionally racked up fairly substantial revenues from the low end of the workstation market, this segment began to dry up for Sun and other Unix vendors in 1996, said Dan Dolan, an analyst at Dataquest.

Intel-based vendors such as Compaq started to release NT-based workstations, which found fairly quick acceptance among customers, he said. On top of that, Sun's only workstation in the $5,000 range was the SparcStation 5, which was based on aging technology.

"The problem is that NT became the new definition of 'low-end,'" he said.

While the Unix workstation segment remains secure at its high end, overall workstation growth has come in the low-cost NT sector, he added. In 1996, Unix vendors shipped some 708,000 workstations, accounting for $11 billion in revenue. For the first half of 1997, Unix shipments accounted for 355,000 units and $5.6 billion in revenue, roughly on pace with 1996.

NT workstation sales, however, are growing geometrically. Slightly more than 132,000 NT workstations were shipped in all of 1996. In the first half of 1997 alone, 133,000 were shipped. 1996 revenue came to $945 million; first-half revenue for 1997 came to $912 million.

Sun will formally unveil the workstations in San Francisco on January 13.

Sun declined to comment, stating that it is company policy not to discuss unannounced products.