AMD chips, Linux line up for Sun blades

Sun Microsystems begins selling its first blade server that can run Linux, a move that tightens the company's ties with chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices.

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Sun Microsystems on Wednesday began selling its first blade server that can run Linux, a move that tightens Sun's ties with chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices.

Sun, one of the top four server sellers but a company that has come under fierce attack by Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, began selling blade servers using its own UltraSparc IIi processors this spring. The AMD-based system is Sun's first blade to use an "x86" processor, a chip such as Intel's Xeon or AMD's Athlon. The shift will let Sun blades run Linux as well as Sun's Solaris operating system.

The AMD-based blade, called the B100x, costs $1,799 for a model with 2GB of memory and a 1.53GHz Mobile Athlon XP 1800 processor. Though months late, the product is available now. The blade is one of a slew of products the Santa Clara, Calif.-based server seller is discussing in Berlin in keeping with its quarterly update strategy.

Sun is forging a closer relationship with AMD, which also is an Intel rival. Sun plans to sell systems in early 2004 that use AMD's high-end Opteron processor, a chip that--unlike Intel's x86 products--has 64-bit features that let it use vastly more memory.

Sun's Opteron-specific version of Solaris will be available by July 1, 2004, Jonathan Schwartz, executive vice president for software at Sun, said in an interview. And in 2004, Sun will begin selling an Opteron-based workstation, said Larry Singer, Sun's chief competitive officer.

Blades are strategically important; research firm IDC believes 20 percent of all servers that ship in 2007 will be blades. Though in the third quarter they were still a small fraction of the $10.8 billion total server market, blade server sales increased to $164 million from $118 million in the second quarter, IDC analyst Jean Bozman said.

"It took a while for it to get together, but now the battle is dawning," she said. "Being strong in blades is going to be really important."

IBM and HP "are in very good shape" with their blade products, but the slower-than-expected arrival of blades gives Sun some breathing room, Bozman said. "People had high hopes for the blade server market in 2002. It's only now hitting its stride. Sun could be moving forward at a time when the blade server market is really going to be ramping up."

In the third quarter, IBM for the first time surpassed HP to become the leader of the blade server market, measured both by unit shipments and by revenue, IDC said. Dell is in third place, and others including Gateway--historically weak in the server market--are trying to get into the act.

Most blade servers today are dual-processor models, although HP sells a single-processor model using Intel's Pentium M mobile processor. An IBM executive said Big Blue also has a single-processor blade system in the works.

Playing catch-up
Sun has been trying to make up lost ground in the low-end server market. "Low-end blades do sell, just like any low-cost servers do, which is why Sun got into--had to get into--x86 based servers to begin with," Illuminata analyst David Freund said.

In addition, the company plans a dual-processor blade system, one using Intel's Xeon processors and one using Sun's Gemini chip, which features the equivalent of two processors etched onto a single slice of silicon.

Sun also began selling the $13,800 special-purpose B10p blade on Wednesday that includes hardware to accelerate Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption, the technology used to provide secure communications with Web sites for tasks such as submitting credit card information.

Among Sun's other announcements on Wednesday were:

•  The Java Desktop System, Sun's Linux software that had been code-named Mad Hatter, now is available for a cost of $100 per employee per year. For customers who are paying the $100-per-employee price for Sun's server software, called the Java Enterprise System, the desktop software cost drops to $50 per employee per year.

•  Sun will set up a radio frequency identification (RFID) test center in Texas to help suppliers to Wal-Mart Stores ensure that their goods are properly equipped with the tracking tags.

The company will offer support globally for OpenOffice, the open-source sibling to Sun's StarOffice software aimed squarely at the dominant Microsoft Office suite. Previously, Sun only provided technical support for StarOffice, but, Schwartz said, "We've seen a lot of adoption of OpenOffice...and they want support on the existing product."

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•  On Sun's two highest-end systems, the Sun Fire 12K and 15K, the company is improving self-monitoring and recovery technology that now can detect if a processor or memory is failing and then move a task to a working spare without interrupting work, Singer said.

•  Sun has extended a variant of its Java Enterprise System pricing to software companies that include Sun's software as a component in their broader server software packages. Those software partners now can include Sun's software by paying Sun $1,000 per processor that the software is used on--a deal that replaces a multitude of other arrangements that varied according to which of Sun's programs the software company was using. "We now have the opportunity to help them drop the price of the components," Schwartz said.

•  The Java Enterprise System also will be available free for companies with 99 or fewer employees, though the price doesn't include the training or software migration services that come with the $100-per-employee-per-year version, Singer said.

•  Sun has moved the products acquired earlier this year from CenterRun into the N1 suite of management software. The CenterRun software lets a company more easily direct servers to perform specific tasks. German railroad company Deutsche Bahn plans to describe its use of the software.

•  Sun upgraded its 12-processor V1280 with a faster 1.2GHz UltraSparc III processor. And it's bringing faster 3.2GHz processors to its V60x and V65x Intel-based servers.

•  Sun is improving the networking performance of Solaris by 25 percent to 50 percent in its coming version 10, Schwartz said. "We believe this will put us at or ahead of Red Hat."

•  Sun is announcing a new workstation, the dual-processor Sun Blade 2500 with Sun's 1.2GHz UltraSparc IIIi chips and a starting price of $4,995.