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New workstation shows Sun's focus

Sun Microsystems is introducing a new high-end product aimed directly at weakened rival Silicon Graphics.

Sun Microsystems will introduce a new high-end workstation aimed directly at weakened rival Silicon Graphics.

The new system will come with twice the processors, memory capability, and video card slots as its former top-of-the-line offering. The Ultra 80 can handle as many as four of Sun's UltraSparc II processors running at 450 MHz, according to Chris Scheufele, manager of Sun's workstation product line.

Based on the Unix operating system, the Ultra 80's marketing may be as important as its horsepower. According to company executives, Sun is targeting rival SGI, a firm renowned for computers specializing in graphics-intensive visualization tasks, but one that remains mired in financial difficulties.

"SGI has demonstrated that it's in a very weakened condition. Customers are nervous about its stability, and Sun is seeking to capitalize on that," said Jon Peddie, principal analyst at Jon Peddie Associates in Tiburon, California.

SGI could not be reached for comment.

Good graphics performance is critical to Sun's efforts to elbow in on SGI turf. Sun will come out with a new video system soon, Scheufele said, anticipating a tenfold performance increase.

Peddie said the new video system, called TVD, likely will arrive in the first quarter of 2000 and use Sun's upcoming MAJC chip.

Another boost for Sun workstations will arrive next year when Sun starts selling systems with its new UltraSparc III chip, code-named Cheetah.

"When we announce Cheetah-based workstations, you're going to see new levels of graphics and CPU [central processing unit] performance," Sun chief operating officer Ed Zander said last month in a conference call.

Sun also is adding a new visualization feature to Solaris, Sun's version of Unix. The new software, called Xinerama, allows a computer to spread a display across as many as 12 monitors, Scheufele said.

That too is aimed at SGI, Scheufele said.

"There is an opening in the market," he said. Customers are approaching Sun, saying, "'We need someone to be committed to this space,'" he said.

Other strong Unix workstation makers include Hewlett-Packard and IBM. However, the latter has apparently withdrawn from the visualization and simulation market, Peddie said, making the way easier for Sun.

The Unix workstation market, which some believed would shrivel with the arrival of cheaper Windows NT-based machines, is alive and kicking, and Sun is leading the way. The company charges as little as $2,000 for its basic machines, adopting ordinary PC components and manufacturing methods to keep costs as low as possible.

That doesn't mean all Sun systems are cheap: A four-processor version of the Ultra 80 will cost more than $37,000. Workstations in this price range are used for heavy-duty design and simulation and modeling tasks such as modeling cars within computers instead of with real prototypes. They're also good for processing and visualizing satellite images or other high-resolution photographs.

One of the biggest advantages they have over Windows-based workstations comes in the high-speed communications between the video system and the processors. Sun machines have a bandwidth of 1.9 gigabytes per second, more than twice the current abilities of 800 megabytes per second found on Windows workstations. However, systems with new memory technology from Rambus and other companies are beginning to close the gap.

The Ultra 80 has room for two Elite 3D M6 video cards, Scheufele said. In addition, the new systems will work with at least two more generations of newer video cards.

Though the computers can accept up to four processors, Sun expects to sell some with just one or two processors to customers who can use the greater memory capacity of the Ultra 80, Scheufele said. A single-processor Ultra 80 with 256 MB of RAM will cost $15,536.

Concurrent with the Ultra 80's arrival, Sun will cut its prices on its Ultra 60 models as much as 18 percent tomorrow, Scheufele said. A version with a 360-MHz chip and an 18GB hard disk will cost $8,995, down from $9,995, he said.

Also tomorrow, Sun will introduce a new 18.1-inch flat-panel display with a resolution of 1280-by-1024 pixels. The display will cost $3,300 and is manufactured by Samsung, the company said.