Sun bumps back Opteron servers

Delay in delivery of Galaxy family casts light on Sun's x86 ambitions and on the unending tug-of-war between AMD and Intel.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
BOSTON--Sun Microsystems has pushed back the delivery date of a server family built around Opteron chips, as it makes adds and tweaks to the lineup.

The Galaxy family of servers, based on technology acquired when Sun bought start-up Kealia a year ago, will have as many eight processor sockets. Sun will start shipping the first of those products this summer, said John Fowler, an executive in Sun's network systems group.

That's later than Sun had planned. Last year, Fowler said he expected a full new family of servers based on Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron to be released by end of June 2005.

"It's taking a little longer than we had hoped, but the products will be better," Fowler said Wednesday, in an interview at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here.

Fowler's reason for the delay: Sun added some new products and refined others after hearing comments from customers about its existing servers. One change will be better management tools, he said.

The stakes are high for Sun. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is promoting Opteron aggressively as it tries to expand use of its Solaris operating system as an alternative to Linux. It's also making an effort to catch up with Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell in the market for servers that use x86 processors such as Opteron and Intel's Xeon.

It's made some progress. In the fourth quarter, Sun was the top buyer of Opteron processors, AMD CEO Hector Ruiz said earlier this month. As for sales of Opteron servers, 55 percent of Sun's customers come back for more, Fowler said.

Still, Linux continues to be much more popular than Solaris on Sun's x86-based servers. In addition, Sun has a tiny share of the overall market for servers based on x86 processors.

On top of that, Sun's edge in Opteron systems isn't necessarily permanent. Henri Richard, AMD's executive vice president for sales and marketing, hinted in an interview that some server makers that have been holding out on the AMD chip may start buying in the second half of 2005. That's when dual-core Opterons, which combine two processing engines on a single slice of silicon, are set to launch.

"I think as dual-core (arrives), you will see broader endorsement," Richard said. "If you don't have a dual-core Opteron in the second half of this year, you're going to be at a significant disadvantage."

AMD rival Intel isn't standing idle, though. Among other things, the chipmaker is adding features such as Vanderpool technology to its processors, designed to make it easier to run multiple operating systems on one server. And it still dominates the x86 market, despite Opteron's gains.

Sun already sells two-processor and four-processor Opteron servers, the V20z and V40z. What's different with the Galaxy line is that it is

built on the company's first in-house designs. Fowler said the company has more ambitious plans for the Kealia technology that underpins the servers: It's going to build designs that Fowler's predecessor canceled but that Fowler has resurrected.

"The original leadership thought they were too radical. I thought they were not radical enough," Fowler said. "You'll see those in 2005."

Opteron is better than Xeon for server designers, Fowler said. The processor has better performance, and its on-board memory controller and HyperTransport communication links lower costs by eliminating otherwise necessary support chips. Consequently, Sun no longer sells the Xeon-based V60 and V65 servers it introduced in 2003, he said.

Opterons come with 64-bit extensions that permit easy access to more than 4GB of memory. At the moment, only Xeons for dual-processor servers have that feature, though models targeted at four-processor machines will arrive within the next three months, Intel said.

Upgrading also isn't difficult. The dual-core Opterons fit in existing systems and won't consume more power than current Opterons, which is 95 watts, Richard said.

If AMD launches its dual-core Opterons on schedule later this year, it will be a step ahead of Intel, which doesn't plan to release dual-core Xeons until early 2006. That advantage provides a good rationale for server makers to accept AMD and introduce Opteron products without irking Intel too much, Richard said.

Sun and HP already sell Opteron servers. IBM was the first to do so, but its designs are marketed for high-performance technical computing rather than for general-purpose server tasks.

"We cannot forget that IBM was the first on the stage with us. Now they've clearly taken more of a follower position," Richard said. "I would stay tuned for the future. It's possible IBM will surprise the world with a very innovative product."

IBM declined to comment on plans for future products. However, the company is "consistently evaluating customer demands," spokesman Tim Willeford said.

Dell is the only one of the four major server makers without an Opteron system to sell. However, Dell executives have been speaking more fondly of AMD in recent months, indicating that a change may be in the works.

One sticking point is whether AMD can keep its edge over Intel in the areas where it leads, Dell spokesman Bruce Anderson said. "There are certainly some new things AMD is doing that are very interesting to us," Anderson said. "We have many of those technologies in our labs. The question is more over their ability to sustain that for the long haul."

Richard said that long-term focus is now a permanent fixture at AMD.

"Some of the past history makes people nervous about depending on AMD," he said. "Now our intent is to be predictable and reliable, rather than the guy who always has the fastest part out there."