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Sun revamps servers with UltraSparc, Opteron

The major overhaul puts Sun's new dual-core UltraSparc IV chip in its high-end models and banks on AMD's Opteron to ignite sales of x86 servers.

Sun Microsystems plans to unveil a major overhaul to its server line on Tuesday, when it will introduce systems that use its own new UltraSparc IV chip and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processor.

As reported, the servers will star at Sun's quarterly product announcement event in San Francisco. The first UltraSparc IV-based models, however, won't be available until March and the first Opteron model until April, according to Sun.

The UltraSparc IV chip packs two UltraSparc III processors on a single slice of silicon. Such "dual-core" chip technology debuted in the server market in IBM's Power4 in 2001 and is at the heart of the PA-8800 Unix servers introduced by Hewlett-Packard on Monday.

"This does give a nice performance boost to Sparc systems that really was fairly badly needed at this point," Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said.

An UltraSparc IV server will perform up to 80 percent faster than that of an UltraSparc III system, said Mark Tolliver, Sun's chief strategy officer. The price, however, will be only about 30 percent higher, he said.

For years, Sun designed servers based only on UltraSparc, but now--like rivals Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell--is juggling multiple chip families. To do that requires not only new hardware design, but also new supplier and sales relationships and new versions of its server software.

The new Sun models are being launched at a fiercely competitive time in the server market, just now returning to growth after years of punishing discounts. Monday's announcement marked HP's bid, and IBM is slated to release its new Power5-based "Squadron" systems later in the year.

The UltraSparc IV systems are the first major processor overhaul since the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company introduced its UltraSparc III line in late 2000. This time, Sun hopes to complete the chip transition faster, taking two quarters to do it, compared with a year for the last change.

This transition could be made easier by the fact that the dual-core UltraSparc IV chips--which run at speeds of 1.05GHz or 1.2 GHz--don't require brand-new servers. UltraSparc IV system boards can run side-by-side in the same servers as the older UltraSparc III boards.

Digging out
And Sun could use a boost. It has suffered 11 straight quarters of year-over-year revenue declines, remains unprofitable and has lost market share to IBM. However, after the "particularly difficult quarter" that ended in September, Sun's fortunes rose somewhat in the last quarter of 2003 with a narrower net loss and more revenue than analysts expected.

Tolliver said the dual-core processors mark the start of its "throughput computing" era, in which a chip handles multiple software tasks, or "threads," simultaneously. The company considers each UltraSparc IV a single processor. In this, it differs from HP and IBM, which count a dual-core chip as two processors.

That aside, "Sun is following the same path that the other processor makers are: taking advantage of process technology to put two cores in a chip, because nobody can figure out what to do with all the transistors on a chip to make a single big core," Haff said.

New UltraSparc IV models
Sun's new top-end server will be the Sun Fire E25K, which comes with up to 72 UltraSparc IV processors and is due to ship in April, said Steve Campbell, the vice president of marketing for Sun's Enterprise Systems Products group. It has a starting price of $825,000, but a more likely configuration--with 48 processors running at 1.05GHz and 192GB of memory--will cost $2.24 million, Sun said.

The 36-processor E20K and the 12-processor E2900 are also set to debut in April, Campbell said. The first UltraSparc IV systems out of the gate, in March, will be the 12-processor E4900 and the 24-processor E6900 models, Campbell said.

Getting x86 religion
Sun hopes its Opteron systems--starting with the V20z--will ignite its sales of x86 servers. The performance of a dual-processor Opteron server is 20 to 100 percent better than a dual-processor Xeon server, Tolliver said; its price starts at $2,795.

Sun was "lukewarm" about x86 servers when it first introduced them in late 2002--years after competitors--but a change has come, Haff said.

"There are a lot of indications that Sun has shed a lot of the all-Sparc-all-the-time religion and really is willing to take Opteron as far as Opteron is capable of going," Haff said.

Sun's Opteron systems will be available with Linux and Solaris. Initially, it will have the same 32-bit version of Solaris that runs on Intel servers, but in the second half of 2004, Sun will release a 64-bit version, Tolliver said.

Sun also is bringing dual-processor Xeon systems to its blade server line--a move it had planned to accomplish in 2003. The company's B200x can slide into the same chassis as the company's UltraSparc II-based blades, and its N1 software can help manage what software runs on the entire collection.