Schedule slips for second Sun blade

The computing systems giant plans to release its second blade server design, based on an Athlon processor, by the end of the year.

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SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems could release its second blade server design, a thin system based on an Athlon processor, by year-end, a few months later than expected.

When Sun announced its blade servers in February, it said the Intel processor-compatible system would arrive "midyear," according to Ashley Eikenberry, group manager of blades product marketing. At a meeting with reporters Friday, Sun gave itself more leeway.

"We're on track to deliver this year," said Colin Fowles, director of entry servers for Sun's Volume System Products group, on Friday. The Intel-compatible systems are being tested at customer sites, he added.

Blade servers, systems that slide into a single chassis like books into a bookshelf, figure prominently in plans from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer and Intel. Sun's first blade system, which lets 16 blades with the company's own UltraSparc IIe processor fit into a 5.25-inch-tall chassis, is shipping.

Sun already has experienced a blade schedule slip, as have IBM and Dell. But the significance of the delay is moderated by the fact that the market for blades is still young.

"Blades have been a slow market to develop," Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said. "Look at the hurry, or lack thereof, that Dell has with blades. That gives you a pretty good barometer of where the volume market is."

Blades make sense for companies starting from scratch, but their newness imposes costs that can outweigh the fact that they're cheaper to manage, Haff said. "From an initial purchase point of view, they're not necessarily cheaper.

Sun's "x86" blade--named after the instruction set used by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices processors--will use AMD's Athlon XP-M processor running at 1.2GHz. It will be available running Linux or Sun's x86 version of its Solaris operating system.

Sun also is planning a dual-processor x86 blade. And the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company plans to release in the first half of 2004 a model with a "dual core" UltraSparc chip--two processors etched onto the same slice of silicon. Fowles on Friday declined to comment whether the dual-core machine would use Sun's Gemini processor, a design using UltraSparc II processors intended for low-end servers.

When the x86 blades arrive, customers will be able to mix them with UltraSparc blades in the same chassis. It's a practice employed by one Sun blade beta customer, Canadian telecommunication company Telus, according to Craig Richardson, the telecom company's assistant vice president for hosting and managed applications.

Sun is also adding "specialty blades" that plug into the same chassis, said Mandar Dange, Sun product line manager for network and security products. Sun is selling one specialty blade with a dedicated chip to balance loads among groups of blades, and plans another with a special chip for accelerating Web transactions encrypted with the SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) standard.

Sun's blade management software is a first incarnation of its N1 technology to group equipment into vast, easily reconfigured pools of computing resources. The N1 software for blades makes it easier for administrators to quickly reconfigure the job assigned to one or several blades.

Charlie Boyle, an N1 architect, declined to say what fraction of Sun's blade customers are purchasing the N1 software as well, but did say, "It started out high and is increasing."

Next year, though, Sun will bring in a new "midplane" technology: the InfiniBand high-speed communication technology.

To communicate inside a chassis, blade servers are attached to a series of wires called a "midplane." Sun's blades communicate using a regular Ethernet network on this midplane today, Fowles said.

"You can expect us to be announcing in 2004 blade technology around InfiniBand as the interconnect," Fowler said. InfiniBand will be used not only on the midplane to connect one blade to another, but also to connect to outboard storage and networking devices, he said.