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Sun systems key to HBO transformation

The server maker's gear will be at the heart of a transformation under which HBO and 14 other networks will retire their tape-based broadcasting equipment.

Sun Microsystems' computing gear will be at the heart of a transformation under which HBO and 14 other networks will retire their tape-based broadcasting equipment.

The 15 television networks, including Cinemax, are moving to a system in which computers, rather than tape playback systems, send the video streams to distribution satellites. Sun has sold the networks two of its Sun Fire 6800 servers and two top-end StorEdge 9980 storage systems, said Mark Canepa, executive vice president of Sun's Network Storage Products Group.

Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy is expected to announce the deal Friday at the company's JavaOne show in San Francisco, where loyalists gather to hear the latest about Sun's Java software, which can run programs across a wide variety of computing systems.

Also at the show, McNealy plans to announce that HBO and the other networks will standardize their software so that it runs on a Java foundation.

Although Sun declined to say how much the deal is worth, it's likely to be several million dollars. Sun's 9980 storage systems have a list price well above $1 million; the 6800 servers cost several hundred thousand dollars. The stations are also using Sun's QFS file system software. The networks will start with 5 terabytes worth of storage space and will upgrade to 50 terabytes--enough to store about 5,000 hours of programming.

The deal helps Sun maintain its position as the top seller of Unix servers, despite tough competition from Hewlett-Packard and IBM, not to mention encroaching Intel-based products running Windows or Linux. After years of declines, the server market is expected to return to growth in 2004, according to research firm IDC.

Couch potatoes will begin seeing TV shows originating from the new servers by the end of June, Sun said.

The Sun installation is designed to operate with "five nines" reliability--a common industry term that refers to a system that's available 99.999 percent of the time, or all but 5 minutes and 11 seconds per year.

The system is built with enough redundancy and networking ability that, even if its database of programming content is lost on part of the system, it can rebuild the information from backup while still transmitting the signal uninterrupted, Canepa said.