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Sun: Four years to go in x86 transformation

Sun is earnest about x86 servers, but has years of work before they're fully integrated into its business.

MENLO PARK, Calif.--Two down, four to go.

Sun Microsystems began its pushing x86 server efforts in earnest two years ago, but the company still has several years to go before the transformation into a full-fledged x86 hardware maker is complete, said John Fowler, executive vice president of the network systems group that builds x86 servers.

"I think we are in the first two years of six," Fowler said in an interview here Friday. The serious part of the effort began two years ago when Jonathan Schwartz took over as chief operating officer and carved out once-shunned x86 servers as a separate Sun business unit.

Sun once sold only machines with its Sparc processors, but responding to market pressure added generic Intel-based servers in 2002. Last year, Sun introduced its own designs, the dual-processor X4100 and X4200 of the "Galaxy" family using Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron. Sun plans to release an eight-processor Galaxy by the end of June and also a blade server, but has a long way to go to catch up to x86 leaders Hewlett-Packard, Dell and IBM.

With software, the x86 embrace is a different story, Fowler said. There, "I think our internal transformation is complete. The software teams are on equal footing," he said. The rest of the computing industry naturally lags but is coming along with gradually expanding Solaris x86 support, he added.

Though Sun holds the door open for Intel, its current designs use AMD's Opteron only and it will take a big improvement to Sun to change, Fowler said.

"It would have to be very good," he said. "It's got to be something that (the) customer can clearly understand and the sales force can explain. Five percent (performance improvement) is not particularly easy to explain."

Intel has made some good steps, he said, with its upcoming Woodcrest server processors, which reduce electrical power consumption and resulting waste heat from "the ridiculous blowtorch levels" of current designs. "Obviously, dumping the NetBurst pipeline was a good move for them," he said. He looks forward to more competitive pressures to push AMD harder.

Intel spokesman Scott McLaughlin declined to comment on Sun's characterization of its chips, other than to say, "We compete in the marketplace, not in sound bites."

At its recent Intel Developer Forum, the chipmaker boasted of Woodcrest's performance, showing a system with the prototype chips beating a Sun Fire Opteron server in a speed test. Fowler was skeptical of the merits of the demonstration.

"At IDF, Intel has a long history of making stupendous claims of performance," Fowlwer said. Intel's Potomac--a NetBurst-based Xeon chip for four-processor servers--"was going to be the most competitive chip. It didn't quite turn out that way."