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Sun seeks self-reliance with new gear

Sun Microsystems is set to overhaul its server line and cut prices Monday in a move to show it's got the research power to stay competitive, even with today's depressed spending.

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Sun Microsystems will overhaul most its server line and cut prices Monday in an effort to show that it's got enough research power to stay competitive, even with today's depressed spending.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based server seller has changed its announcement technique so it releases one fusillade of new products each quarter. Sun argues that the breadth of this first barrage shows that its technology and expertise will let it control its future.

As expected, Sun will debut a faster 1.2GHz processor and lower prices for its top-end and midrange servers, tout its first server "blades" and accompanying N1 management software, release its new 12-processor server intended to keep Intel at bay and discontinue one significant midrange system. Chief Executive Scott McNealy and others will announce the plans at an event in San Francisco.

"We're going to really show the world why we're an intellectual property shop, why we invest in our own research and development," said Neil Knox, Sun's executive vice president of systems that ship in high volume and the general on the front lines of the battle to keep Sun ahead of servers that use Intel processors.

But the company's boasts about the power of its own intellectual property are tarnished by the encroachment of Linux and Intel into Sun's product line. That outside technology competes directly with Sun's UltraSparc processor family and Solaris version of the Unix operating system.

While Sun deserves credit for proving that powerful Unix servers can compete against Intel systems, it's clear computers using Sun processors eventually will be inundated, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice.

"I don't think anything is sufficient to keep the commodity forces at bay," Eunice said. "You can't fight it. It's like trying to fight the future."

Sun has been grappling with change since it lost much of the cachet it had during the spending frenzy of the dot-com years. The company is working hard to return to sustained profitability after several quarters of losses triggered by curtailed spending and fierce server competition with IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell Computer.

IBM and HP have long since recovered from when Sun caught them napping in the 1990s, but now Sun has begun dealing with its challenges, said Giga Information Group analyst Brad Day. "Sun finally got the wake-up call," he said.

While Sun is under attack by all comers, the company has proved its ability to escape from a tight corner.

"McNealy and crew are just a little bit crazed, but with that fanaticism and that attitude, they have a nimbleness they've demonstrated on a multiple occasions--people tend to forget that," Eunice said. Sun made the leap from workstations to servers in the 1980s. It came up with Java when Unix was threatened. It successfully pushed high-end and low-end Unix servers when competitors thought it would be a mistake. "I've been hearing Sun's strategy is now bankrupt and will be outstripped by X or Y since the 1980s," Eunice said.

There are clear signs of Sun's adjustment to the arrival of cheaper computing components. Executives cite the willingness to let arch rival Intel and once-disparaged Linux into the fold as an example of Sun's adaptability.

"We talk a lot to our customers. We're focused on meeting their needs rather than our religious commitment to a certain architecture," Sun's Knox said. "Intel has changed the clock speed to the point where it's a viable computing platform for certain applications."

Shifting boundaries
A subtler but equally telling sign of the change at Sun is the shifting boundary between Sun's volume systems division, run by Knox, and the higher-end enterprise systems group division, run by Clark Masters.

Effectively, the commodity philosophy of Sun's volume group has crept farther up the Sun product line.

In the past, the high-end "midframe" line from the enterprise group included servers as small as the eight-processor Sun Fire 3800. That system shares "Uniboard" processor boards with the more powerful midframe models, the 4800, 6800, 12K and 15K.

Now though, Sun has decided to stop taking orders for the 3800 on Aug. 1, the company said. Filling its place is the existing eight-processor v880, and now the v1280 as well. Although the volume group designed the v1280, the enterprise group will sell it.

"We assumed responsibility for that product," said Steve Campbell, vice president of Sun's enterprise systems products.

The Uniboard strategy to unify the higher-end products is a good idea, letting customers reconfigure servers more easily, but it's not without cost. "It makes (the 3800) overpriced compared with the competition," Day said.

Eunice believes the 12-processor 4800 soon will meet the same fate as the 3800. "As the volume systems group is stepping up to larger systems, it really is cannibalizing the midframe line," he said.

Campbell said Sun won't take that step, though. There's a bigger performance boost between the v1280 and the 4800 than there is between the v880 and the 3800, he said.

High-end improvements
One big change for the 4800 and higher will be the 1.2GHz UltraSparc III, a boost from the 900MHz and 1.05GHz models in use today. The chip, built on a 130-nanometer manufacturing process that permits smaller features, is less expensive for manufacturing partner Texas Instruments to build, and Sun is passing along the cost cuts.

System prices will be cut between 18 percent and 35 percent, Campbell said, with deeper cuts on lower-end configurations that don't use as much memory. Uniboards with the 1.2GHz chips may be mixed in the same cabinets as slower processors, and systems with the new boards run work 25 percent to 35 percent faster than those with 900MHz models, he added.

There are separate improvements for the two top-end models, the 36-processor 12K "Starkitty" and the 72-processor 15K "Starcat." In those machines, Sun has loosened the previously hard-wired connection between processor boards and input-output systems such as network cards, Campbell said, letting customers assign as much or as little communication capability to a given partition.

But just as Intel server makers are breathing down Sun's neck for lower-end systems, IBM and HP are applying unrelenting pressure at the higher end.

Big Blue is bringing mainframe-like capabilities to low-end systems that can run many copies of an operating system simultaneously. It's shipped 2,000 eight-processor p650 systems since their debut in November. And in 2004, as many as 64 of IBM's forthcoming Power5 processors will be the foundation of Big Blue's planned Armada server.

On top of its technology, IBM is willing to discount.

"IBM is everybody's worst enemy now, not just because they're big and hulking but because they're fast and smart," Eunice said.

Blades--later but better
Monday's announcement will start to catch Sun up to HP and IBM in one important new server area, blade servers. These smaller systems fit side-by-side in a single enclosure, reducing cabling snarls, sharing components such as power supplies and providing a showcase for management software needed to control the machines.

Sun is playing catch-up with blades, but the market is still young.

RLX Technologies pioneered the concept. HP's first blades--actually those from Compaq Computer before the two companies merged--were released a year ago.

As 2002 progressed, most blade advocates started propounding higher-end models with two or four processors, a concept that start-up led. That direction is where the blade products from Dell and IBM headed as they arrived late in 2002.

Sun now is describing, though not releasing, its first systems, single-processor models. A year ago, Sun promised the blades in 2002, then pushed back the schedule to the first part of 2003.

Sun's blades will have some differences. For one thing, there will be UltraSparc blades, the $1,795 B100 due in April, while competitors are focusing on Intel blades only. And sliding into the same $4,795 B1600 chassis will be blades using Intel-compatible processors--Sun wouldn't say wither from Intel, AMD or another manufacturer--that are due midyear. Sun also will work with partners for special-purpose blades to handle chores like accelerating encrypted Web page communications.

The biggest difference will be the N1 management technology. This technology, a Sun idea bolstered by the acquisitions last year of Terraspring and Pirus Networks, ultimately will collect groups of servers, storage systems and networking components so they behave more or less like a single mammoth computer. The goal is to reduce the number of administrators it takes to run complex computing operations.

N1 competes with IBM's management plans, variously called eLiza, autonomic computing, utility computing and on-demand computing, and with HP's Utility Data Center product and adaptive infrastructure initiative. Sun, though, has done a good job bringing its vision toward reality.

"I was very impressed. In a period of six months, Sun was able to go from no N1 story to a very sophisticated N1 story," Eunice said.

By contrast, HP has done a bad job with its explanations of adaptive infrastructure. "Either it is the strategy under which computing and information technology resources will be unified and it's not articulated, or it's not the strategy and it was a blow-away presentation and we've forgotten," Eunice said.

N1 will cost, though. N1 software for one B1600 chassis will run $3,920, and for a rack of 11 chasses it will cost $34,500, Sun said. Two "happy meal" bundles with blades, N1 software and control hardware, and Sun server software will be available for $27,000 and $175,000.

Sun does plan higher-end blades, said Ashley Eikenberry, manager of marketing for the blades group. Dual-processor Intel-compatible blades will emerge in the second half of 2003. Blades with dual-core UltraSparc chips--upcoming products with two processors on the same slice of silicon--will arrive in the first half of 2004, Eikenberry said.

Sun has a compelling slate of new products, and now must move on to delivering them promptly.

"It's all about execution," Day said. "If they don't come out with...quantity shipments this quarter and next quarter, these salivating HP and IBM (salespeople) will take full advantage of that time-to-market constraint. Both IBM and HP, they're hungry."