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Sun begins high-end phase of x86 servers

Company launching high-end server, its second attempt at blades and the resurrected "Thumper" packed with 48 disk drives. Photos: Sun's Opteron servers

Sun Microsystems on Tuesday plans to launch the second phase of its x86 server line, three higher-end models that show the company's commitment to and ambitions for the market.

When the company unveiled its "Galaxy" line of Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron-based x86 servers in September, it began with mainstream models with sockets for two processors. The new systems, though, venture much farther afield.

First is the much more powerful eight-socket X4600 system, code-named Galaxy4. Next is the hefty 33.25-inch-tall Sun Blade 8000 chassis, code-named Andromeda, that can accommodate 10 four-socket blades. Last is the unusual two-socket X4500 system, code-named Thumper, with a whopping 24 terabytes' storage capacity.

The X4600 with four 2.4GHz Opterons costs $25,995, with the price rising to $67,495 for eight 2.6GHz dual-core chips. The X4500 starts at $32,995 but costs $69,995 for a model with the top 24-terabyte capacity. The 8000, including a chassis and a low-end blade, starts at $19,940; a single top-end blade with four dual-core 2.6GHz Opterons and 64GB of memory costs $47,315.

It remains to be seen how successful Sun will be using the new products to reach its goal of No. 4 in the x86 server market by the end of 2006, and in the longer term, to restore overall revenue growth and profitability. But the three new products show Sun is working hard to make its x86 machines stand out, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice.

"Each one of them has flash," Eunice said. "In each one of the segments they targeted, they did something that is either unique or head-of-class to make it clear they're not just doing a me-too, yeah, yeah."

Sun entered the x86 server market late and initially struggled with lukewarm products and halfhearted marketing. But the company got x86 religion, fueled in part by its decision to bring a full-fledged version of its Solaris operating system to the machines.

Sun's Opteron servers

To hasten its x86 catch-up, Sun acquired start-up Kealia and its key employee, Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim. The company also dropped Intel-based servers in favor of a tight partnership with fellow underdog AMD, which lags Intel in market share but whose Opteron chips today are generally seen as superior to Intel's Xeon.

The moves may have been faster than designing servers from scratch, but Sun didn't meet its early schedule. John Fowler, who led the x86 server group until his promotion last month to run Sparc servers as well, said in June 2004, "I expect to have a whole family of systems during my fiscal year" ended July 2005. Instead, the full family is being released more than a year after that.

And the family still won't be complete with Tuesday's launch. The massive Sun Blade 8000 system will be followed by smaller models. "You're going to see different chassis sizes very optimized for two-way blades," Fowler said, referring to models with two processor sockets due to arrive in "early 2007."

Blades, take two
It's the second try for blades at Sun. The initial Sun Blade 1600 was at the opposite end of the brawniness spectrum, 5.25 inches tall with 16 low-end blade servers. The product quietly faded from Sun's product list after failing to dent the dominance of blade leaders IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

Sun's blade servers will fit into any of its blade server chassis, and Sun plans to feature blades with UltraSparc processors with the release of the "Niagara II" processor in 2007 and the higher-end "Rock" processor scheduled for 2008.

The Sun Blade 8000 is huge compared with its main rivals, IBM's 15.75-inch tall BladeCenter H and HP's 17.5-inch-tall C-Class BladeSystem, both second-generation chassis designs introduced this year. IBM's systems can accommodate seven four-socket blades, and HP's can accommodate eight, compared with 10 for the Sun Blade 8000.

Blades communicate with the external world through a PCI Express input-output system. One advantage of the design: "The blades can be completely stateless, including I/O," meaning that a task can easily be switched from one blade to another without onerous reconfiguration chores, said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood.

Sun believes the time is right for multiprocessor x86 servers. Such systems have come and gone in the past, with Dell and HP both canceling their own eight-socket designs, while smaller one- and two-processor machines proliferated like rabbits, but Sun thinks things are different now.

For one thing, Sun agrees with IBM--which sells the 32-socket x460 Xeon server--that many companies want to employ virtualization to run many operating systems on one server, letting a single machine replace several smaller ones. Such an approach saves on electrical power, management personnel and real estate, said Insight64's Nathan Brookwood.

For another, Sun believes that with Solaris, x86 machines have a reliable operating system that can gracefully handle otherwise crushing workloads. And even though many more low-end systems are sold, Sun believes there's as much money spent on the smaller number of higher-end systems, Fowler said.

HP sees things differently. "Today, 99.8 percent of all x86 servers have between one and four sockets," said Mark Potter, vice president of HP's BladeSystem division. "The eight-socket market today--despite IBM's investment, and Sun I don't think is going to move this at all--was 0.7 percent of units shipped."

Sun is aiming the X4600 squarely at HP's four-socket Opteron-based DL585, with competitive pricing for a four-Opteron model, Fowler said. But while the systems are the same size--7 inches thick--Sun's can be upgraded to eight processors.

One reason HP and Dell favor smaller designs with four or fewer sockets is that individual processors themselves are getting more powerful. Chips these days have dual processing cores, and Intel and AMD plan quad-core designs in 2007.

For Sun, which will accommodate quad-core Opterons, that just means the opportunity for even beefier models. Fowler said the X4600 was designed with quad-core Opterons from the beginning. The systems also use AMD's higher-speed Opteron SC models, which run a notch faster but produce more waste heat.

When Sun acquired Kealia, it canceled its original product, an Opteron server with massive amounts of storage capacity. But when Fowler took over the division in 2004, he reversed that decision. The result is the X4500, 7 inches tall but able to house 48 Serial ATA hard drives in close proximity to dual Opteron processors.

"At Kealia, it was specifically for video, but it looked like storage," Fowler said. At Sun, "people were not sure what to do with it. I said let's resurrect it and bring it to market as a general-purpose platform."

Sun expects the X4500 to be used by companies that will package it with software and sell it for specific tasks--for example, housing streaming media or business intelligence, Fowler said.

Eunice sees the X4500 as a new beast that computing professionals will have to figure out.

"It's a genuine hybrid. It's not a server that has some attached disk, or storage that has a little bit of processing," he said. "It does meet in the middle."