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Sun, HP speed Unix servers

The two plan to boost their Unix servers with faster processors, but Sun Microsystems will be able to mix new and old chips in the same system.

Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard will give a boost to their Unix servers with faster processors Tuesday, but Sun's new chips will be able to coexist with slower models in the same computer.

Sun's UltraSparc III currently runs at 900MHz, but the company will introduce 1.05Ghz models Tuesday for its higher-end systems, the Sun Fire 3800, 4800, 6800, 12K and 15K. And breaking new ground in its Unix servers, the new and old processors will be able to run simultaneously in the same computer.

Sun hopes the ability to mix different speed chips--including future 1.2GHz models now in prototype--will make it easier for customers to upgrade systems without starting from scratch or discarding older parts. Sun's higher-end systems are assembled out of four-processor building blocks called "Uniboards," so customers can upgrade by adding more Uniboards to a system. In addition, a customer buying faster Uniboards could reuse the slower ones in other servers.

Kevin Krewell, an analyst at Microprocessor Report, a semiconductor industry newsletter, said the feature is a good idea. Krewell expects Sun competitors to follow suit. "Giving an end user choice in how they upgrade their systems is always a good thing," he said. "It's a natural progression" in system design.

The new features are part of a race among HP, IBM and Sun to improve Unix servers, which was a $20.6 billion market in 2001, according to Gartner. A shrinking server market has sped up the race to improve the systems as customers are harder to come by.

HP, historically the No. 2 Unix server seller after Sun, is upgrading its two Unix server lines, both its in-house product line based on PA-RISC processors and the AlphaServer line acquired from Compaq and based on the Alpha processor. In coming years, HP is phasing out both processors in favor of Intel's Itanium family, which HP helped develop.

HP's upgrades affect both of its Unix server lines, the company is expected to announce Tuesday. Its midrange Unix servers with four, eight or 16 processors are now available with the PA-RISC 8700+, an 875MHz chip that the company introduced in its top-end Superdome servers.

From the Compaq side of the house, HP released a two-processor AlphaServer with 1GHz processors instead of 833MHz. Its four-processor systems have chips running at 1.25GHz, up from 1GHz, while also incorporating larger amounts of cache memory. AlphaServers with four, eight, 16 and 32 processors moved from 1Ghz to 1.224GHz and also come with a larger cache, HP said.

While HP is betting the Itanium processor will carry the company to new heights, Sun is counting on its UltraSparc line. The new chips will increase server performances as much as 15 percent, said Chris Kruell, Sun's group marketing manager for enterprise system products.

The faster processors will increase the cost of the servers, Kruell said. A Sun Fire 6800 with 16 processors and 64GB of memory costs $709,000 with the 900MHz processors and $869,000 for the 1.05GHz processors, he said.

Mixing processor speeds is something Sun is better able to manage than Microsoft, Intel and their allies, who can't individually control all of the hardware and software that make up a computer, Krewell said. "Sun controls both the hardware and software and can fine-tune both together," Krewell said.

The "backplane" that connects the Sun processors to each other and to input-output devices such as network cards runs at 150MHz, Krewell said, so Sun can accommodate processors that work at multiples of that amount--900MHz, 1.05GHz or 1.2GHz.