In February, Intel drastically cut its support of Sun's effort to bring Solaris to Itanium, saying that Sun wasn't sufficiently committing resources or time to the project. Then the squabble escalated: Sun reaffirmed its plan to bring Solaris to Itanium, while Intel broadly hinted that Sun had become its primary competitor, and target, in the server market.
Now things have changed. In an interview yesterday, Sun chief financial officer Mike Lehman said that running Solaris on Itanium, which was delayed again this week, is not an important part of Sun's future.
"We're not going to fight that battle. Their customers will decide what they really want," Lehman said.
Intel, for its part, hasn't changed its position.
"We weren't seeing much commitment on Sun's part" or seeing interest by software companies writing programs for Solaris on Itanium, said spokesman Bill Kircos. "We're seeing overwhelming support for Windows 2000, Linux and Monterey, and that's where our focus is."
Itanium is the first of the IA-64 family of 64-bit chips from Intel designed to displace high-end designs from Sun, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer, SGI and IBM. Though the chip has been delayed to the fourth quarter, analysts expect the architecture to be dominant in the long term, predicting that the large customer base will allow Intel to sell high-performance chips at lower cost.
The alliance between Sun and Intel always had the appearance of a marriage of convenience. Sun has been the dominant company in Internet servers and having a version of Solaris for Itanium was seen as a way to speed the commercial acceptance of Intel's new technology.
By contrast, adopting Itanium would allow Sun an alternative to solely depending on the UltraSparc processor line. Processor development is both expensive and laden with risk, and Intel dedicates far more research and development funds to chip development than Sun.
On the other hand, part of Sun's popularity exists because the combination of two in-house technologies--UltraSparc and Solaris--allows Sun to provide customers with a seamless package that customers have found useful, analysts have pointed out.
Intel says it will honor its existing contracts to help Sun bring Solaris to Itanium, but that's all. Intel executives have said current contracts don't extend to Itanium's successor, code-named McKinley, which is expected to be much more broadly accepted than Itanium. "Pilot systems" using McKinley are due by the end of 2001, Intel said this week.
Sun's financial strength gives it ample breathing room. But if the future bears out what is being said by Intel and HP, inventors of the IA-64 architecture, then Sun's Sparc chip architecture will run out of steam. Compaq, Dell Computer, HP, SGI, IBM and a host of other big-name server companies have embraced IA-64 chips.
Sun's new UltraSparc III Cheetah chip is due to begin shipping in systems this year, with low-end products showing up first and the new top-end server scheduled to arrive in January.
UltraSparc III chips will debut at 750 MHz and 900 MHz, Zander said yesterday, and the company has begun to build models with copper technology that will run at speeds greater than a gigahertz.
Texas Instruments builds Sun's UltraSparc chip line. At this point, Lehman said, Sun has no plans to look at adding another manufacturing partner, a move that would add cost but provide flexibility and potentially gain access to new microchip technology. "They've been a great partner," Lehman said.
Sun and Intel are fundamentally different in that Sun builds chips chiefly for its own computers, whereas Intel builds chips chiefly for external customers such as IBM, Compaq, Gateway, HP, Dell and countless others.
Intel has come to adopt Sun's strategy in some ways, however, sinking more effort into designing not only the CPU but also supporting hardware such as the chipset that governs the computer's internal communications and memory system and that is the key feature allowing companies to build servers with numerous processors.
Still, Sun and Unix servers in general have a mammoth lead.