Sun defends big blade server: 'Size matters'

The Sun Blade 8000 may be nearly a yard tall, but execs believe other server makers will follow suit.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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SAN FRANCISCO--No, Sun Microsystems' 33.25-inch-tall Sun Blade 8000 is not too big, company executives say.

Sun's blade chassis dwarfs Hewlett-Packard's 17.5-inch C-class BladeSystem and IBM's 15.75-inch BladeCenter H, but Sun argues that big blade servers are the wave of the future and a way Sun can get ahead--and besides, two smaller blade chassis are in the works.

"Size matters," said new Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz at an event here Tuesday launch the Sun Blade 8000 and two other AMD Opteron-based machines.

Sun's servers on stage

Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, the company's top x86 server designer and a respected computer engineer, shed light on his technical reasoning for the move.

"It's not that our blade is too large. It's that the others are too small," he said.

Today's dual-core processors will be followed by models with four, eight and 16 cores, Bechtolsheim said. "There are two megatrends in servers: miniaturization and multicore--quad-core, octo-core, hexadeci-core. You definitely want bigger blades with more memory and more input-output."

When blade server leaders IBM and HP introduced their second-generation blade chassis earlier this year, both chose larger products. IBM's grew 3.5 inches taller, while HP's grew 7 inches taller. But opinions vary on whether Bechtolsheim's prediction of even larger systems will come true.

"You're going to have bigger chassis," said IDC analyst John Humphries, because blade server applications are expanding from lower-end tasks such as e-mail to higher-end tasks such as databases. On the more cautious side is Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff, who said that with IBM and HP just at the beginning of a new blade chassis generation, "I don't see them rushing to add additional chassis any time soon."

Business reasons as well as technology reasons led Sun to re-enter the blade server arena with big blades rather than more conventional smaller models that sell in higher volumes, said the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company's top server executive, John Fowler. "We believe there is a market for a high-end capabilities. And sometimes you go to where the competition isn't," Fowler said.

Blade servers are an increasingly important part of the computer business, with consistent double-digit growth easily outpacing the overall server market. IDC estimates that 500,000 blade servers were sold in 2005, or 7 percent of the total market, with customers spending $2.1 billion. In 2010, the analyst firm projects that to increase to 3 million shipments, or about 25 percent of the market, with customer spending of $11.2 billion, analyst Jean Bozman said.

Sun says big blades are better, but it plans at least two smaller models in coming months.

The first, due by the end of the year, is geared for high-performance technical computing customers. It will use the same four-processor blades as the Sun Blade 8000, but because of more compact power supplies and other changes, will be only 24.5 inches tall, Bechtolsheim said in an interview.

Then, in early 2007, Sun plans a business-oriented model Bechtolsheim confirmed is code-named Constellation. This model will be geared for dual-processor blades, Fowler said.