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Sun, HP prep new top-end Unix servers

Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard are preparing new higher-end Unix servers for debut near the end of the year, and several other models will spring up from HP before then.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard are preparing new higher-end Unix servers for debut near the end of the year, and several other models will spring up from HP before then.

The new high-end systems incorporate technologies that let customers double the number of processors in an existing chassis. The systems will compete with IBM's p690 and its successor, code-named Squadron.

Sun will overhaul its systems with the new UltraSparc IV processor "right around the end of the year," beginning with the top-end Sun Fire 15K that currently has 72 UltraSparc III processors for business customers, said Clark Masters, executive vice president of Sun's high-end server line, in an interview Thursday. The UltraSparc IV is a "dual core" design with two processors on each slice of silicon, and using it will effectively double the number of processors that fit into each server.

HP has doubling technology of its own, both with its in-house PA-RISC processors and Intel's Itanium processor, which HP co-designed. The PA-RISC line will get its first dual-core model with the PA-8800, code-named "Mako," and with an HP packaging technology called mx2, code-named Hondo, the company can plug two Itaniums into a single processor slot.

The PA-8800 will make its debut in 128-processor Superdome servers late in 2003 or early in 2004, said Mark Hudson, head of marketing for HP's high-end server group, in a recent interview. And the 128-processor Superdome based on Itanium chips will debut in January, Enterprise Server Group chief Peter Blackmore said in a separate interview.

The huge systems, often as large as two side-by-side refrigerators, highlight the renaissance of "big iron." Corporations are buying these powerful central servers to replace the legions of smaller machines that are difficult to manage and that often spend much of their time idling. The philosophy advocating large central systems is called, in industry lingo, "scale up," compared with the "scale out" approach involving smaller systems.

"Scale out is all very well and good, but customers keep buying big iron, and vendors keep making the iron bigger," said RedMonk analyst James Governor. The two philosophies aren't mutually exclusive, though, he added: "Both technologies have a role to play."

The Superdomes will use the Itanium 2 6M processor, a smaller, faster version of the Itanium 2 currently used in HP's two- and four-processor servers.

Itanium 2 6M will make an earlier appearance as well, Blackmore said. In July, HP will make the debut of new versions of its midrange eight-processor rp7400 and 16-processor rp8400, which currently are available only with PA-RISC chips.

And in 2004, HP systems will be upgraded with the faster Itanium 2 9M processor, Hudson added.

Sun is the current leader of the Unix market, which had sales of $16.4 billion in 2002, according to research firm Gartner. HP is in second place, with IBM in third place but bringing its formidable technology resources to bear.

It's been a market rife with brutal competition--not only from other Unix servers but also from increasingly powerful Intel servers and from mainframes. Sun, IBM and HP all have cut Unix server prices in the last six weeks.

"Our objective is to take on IBM and lead the industry," Blackmore said.