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Sun's 'Galaxy' servers making September debut

Opteron-based line, developed by hardware guru Andy Bechtolsheim, is a central part of the company's recovery plan. Photo: Bechtolsheim's 'Galaxy'--a star?

Sun Microsystems plans to announce on Sept. 12 its "Galaxy" line of AMD Opteron-based servers, a product family developed by hardware guru Andy Bechtolsheim that's a central part of the company's recovery plan.

The first two members of the family are expected to be called the Sun Fire X4100 and X4200, according to sources familiar with the products. Both house up to two dual-core Opteron processors, but the X4100 is 1.75 inches thick and has two hard drives, and the X4200 is 3.5 inches thick and has four drives.

More-powerful Galaxy models are expected later, including the four-processor X4400 and the top-line eight-processor X4600, one source said. And John Fowler, head of the Network Solutions Group in charge of the x86 line, has said more-radical designs are coming.

So far, the Opteron push has provided evidence that Sun is willing to make dramatic changes to its business, but it hasn't turned around the company's market share declines. "Overall, it would seem that their Opteron servers are getting some acceptance, but they're certainly not taking the market by storm," said Sageza Group analyst Clay Ryder.

The systems are crucial to Sun's recovery as the company tries to restore revenue growth and consistent profitability. Sun for years shunned servers using x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron, preferring instead to sell machines using its own UltraSparc processors. But the company reversed course in 2002.

If successful, Galaxy could mean new business from core customers already accustomed to the UltraSparc machines. One source said Sun hopes the new product line could lead to $1 billion in new revenue each year for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company.

Sun declined to comment for this report.

The company plans to debut the systems at a quarterly product launch in New York. Also on tap is a revamped strategy for desktop computing, historically a sore point for the company but now one being updated with Tarantella software to use a Sun Ray thin client to control Windows PC applications actually running on a server.

The Galaxy machines join two-processor and four-processor Opteron servers that Sun has sold since 2004, but those models are Sun-badged products actually designed by another company.

Hewlett-Packard, Dell and IBM all have vastly more experience selling x86 servers, usually with Intel processors. One different element in Sun's approach is the inclusion of an x86 version of Sun's now open-source Solaris operating system, which the company argues lowers the overall server price when compared with competitors' models running Linux and Windows.

The Bechtolsheim touch
The Galaxy systems are designed in part by Bechtolsheim, a Sun co-founder who returned to the company in 2004 through its acquisition of his start-up, Kealia. Sun executives proclaim awe for Bechtolsheim's skills to make machines reliable, affordable and power-efficient.

One feature of the Galaxy line will be lights governed by an internal service processor that can help diagnose hardware problems and lead a technician to the problem component. The systems have identical lights on the front and back.

The systems also have hard drives and fans that can be swapped out without shutting the servers down. Each machine has four 1 gigabit Ethernet ports with "failover" capabilities to sidestep port failures.

Another feature is a similar hardware foundation for all the Galaxy server products. That means software that works on one should work on all models, and that spare parts inventories should be easier to maintain. Many of the components also will be used in Sun's forthcoming servers based on its Niagara Sparc processor, executives have said.

Sun is bucking the mainstream x86 server trend by building a comparatively powerful eight-processor model. The vast majority of x86 server sales are dual-processor machines.

That's a market that top x86 server seller HP abandoned and No. 2 Dell decided against entering.

In contrast, IBM has x86 servers with as many as 32 Xeon processors--though those top-end models won't ship for another few weeks. But the market for powerful x86 servers isn't easy. "We haven't seen a lot of success in the high-end multi-CPU systems, so I'm not sure having another one is going to automatically sell," Ryder said of Sun's move.