But in seeking to take over some of the mainframe market, Sun's systems in some ways are coming to resemble the expensive, robust, highly centralized machines run by personnel wearing white coats.
Sun's top-end servers feature the "predictability, discipline, and regimentation" of the traditional data center, said Shahin Khan, of Sun's Data Center Group. But Sun's approach builds on that stability, he said: They believe their servers are robust enough to handle exposure to the unpredictability of the Internet. Or, as Khan puts it, Sun offers the "data center.com."
"It's a two-horse race between IBM and Sun," Khan said. "IBM has the benefit of legacy, but we have the benefit of what's emerging. We think time is on our side."
Among today's announcements are a faster processor for the top-of-the-line Enterprise 10000 "Starfire" server; bigger tape and disk storage systems; upgraded "clustering" software to allow tasks to spread across several computers, and a new Mainframe Affinity Program to make sure Sun hardware can easily be added to mainframe environments.
Sun is "part-way there" in its years-long effort to make its way into mainframe turf, but the company's "data center.com" initiative still isn't going to convince corporate chief information officers to dump their mainframes, said Brad Day, a senior analyst with Giga Information Group.
"For people that have built a much more consolidated data center environment [the mainframe approach], they wouldn't put Sun on their short list," Day said. Sun's effort to "take the data center by storm is just not going to happen."
Today's announcements today follow closely on the heels of Sun's announcement last week of the SunUp program to keep Sun machines and third-party software from crashing.
Although Sun isn't trying to get companies to replace their mainframes, it is trying to make it easier to connect Sun machines to mainframes and prevent customers from buying or upgrading their current mainframes, Khan said.
Through its new Mainframe Affinity Center in Menlo Park, California, Sun will work to understand the mainframe, try out mainframe software on its own systems, and bring mainframe qualities to Sun's Solaris operating system, Khan said. To these ends, Sun has purchased an IBM S/390 mainframe, he said.
Sun's machines, unlike traditional mainframes, have been designed from day one to handle the fluidity and chaos of the network world, Khan said. In addition, Sun systems aren't as expensive as mainframes and have more software available.
To compete in the data center realm, Sun must offer complete, global, end-to-end services that IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and now Compaq Computer offer, Day said. Although Sun is beefing up its internal support programs, it still farms out much local work to third party companies, and that's not what chief information officers want, he said. "CIOs don't have time to buy a box from one vendor, a solution from another, break/fix services from another, and professional services from yet another," Day said.
However, high-end Sun systems will appeal to people who are adding new services such as electronic commerce to their operations, Day said. "This is not an issue of mainframe replacement. A lot of this is new business engagement," he said.
More likely, though, the Sun systems will appeal as a "front end" to traditional data centers, allowing new ways for users to take advantage of the programs running on data centers, such as software controlling the general ledger, accounting, or payroll.
In addition, the high-end Sun systems appeal to companies that are consolidating collections of lower-level servers, he added.
Sun's new offerings