Sun sells second low-end 'Niagara' server

Company begins selling lower-end UltraSparc T1-based servers and completes design of T2 successor.

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Sun Microsystems has begun selling a lower-end server using the UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor and has passed an important milestone in the development of the chip's successor.

The Sun Fire T1000 server is 1.75 inches thick compared with 3.5 inches for the Sun Fire T2000 that went on sale late last year. The novel processor is designed for running more parallel jobs with less electrical power consumption than most processors today, which are geared to run a single task quickly.

The T1000 costs $3,245 for a model with a 1GHz processor with six cores, 2GB of memory, no operating system and no hard drive. Spending $4,995 will get a six-core system with 8GB of memory, an 80GB hard drive and Solaris 10; spending $7,995 upgrades that with the eight cores available in a full-fledged UltraSparc T1.

The T1000 uses a 3.5-inch hard drive, but Sun is considering expanding its storage capacity by using two 2.5-inch drives, said Paul Durzan, director of Niagara product marketing.

Competitors at Intel and IBM are designing chips that also can divide processing jobs among several independent "threads," but they are taking a less aggressive approach. They argue that customers need to run existing software that relies on high single-thread performance.

"Niagara...has a very narrow profile of applications it's good for," Pat Gelsinger, general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group, said in a March interview. "It's a cheaper way of staying in Sparc-Sun jail."

But Sun is betting heavily on its multithreaded design. Its Niagara II, now officially named UltraSparc T2, is due to arrive in servers in the second half of 2007, and a higher-end cousin code-named Rock is due to arrive in servers in 2008.

The Niagara models are geared for lower-end server tasks such as hosting Web pages or Java programs where single-thread performance isn't as important and where computers often have many tasks running in parallel. The UltraSparc T1 can run 32 threads total, and the T2 can run 64, said Fadi Azhari, director of marketing for Sun's Sparc server group.

Sun "taped out" the T2 chip in March, Azhari said, referring to a stage when the initial design is complete and sent to the manufacturer--Texas Instruments in Sun's case. He declined to say when prototypes would be available or at what clock speed Sun hoped for them to run.

The T2 won't drop into existing T1 servers, he said. One significant difference between the chips is that the T2 will be available in multiprocessor configurations, unlike the single-chip-only T1, Sun has said.

Key to the Niagara server success will be converting customers to its relatively unusual design. To that end, Sun has sent out more than 1,000 T2000 servers through a free 60-day trial program. More than half of those went to users who have never bought any products from Sun, Azhari said.

Major Niagara customers include Sina.com, the Chinese Web portal that's replacing its Dell servers with T1000s, and Comverse, which is using T1000s for its phone communications services used by 300 million subscribers worldwide, Azhari said. In addition, the University of Aachen is using T2000s for a high-performance computing system.

Sun laid off 200 employees from its Sparc server group last week, about 7 percent of the total in the group.

Correction: This story incorrectly stated the hard drive size of the $4,995 configuration of the Sun Fire T1000. The size is 80GB.