Sun's Opteron charge to begin in February

Sun Microsystems is placing AMD's Opteron chip at the center of its low-end server strategy, starting with a dual-processor system, to be announced next month, and four- and eight-processor systems later.

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Sun Microsystems is placing Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron chip at the center of its low-end server strategy, starting with a dual-processor system, to be announced next month, and four- and eight-processor systems coming later.

Sun plans to announce the dual-Opteron machine, called the v20z and with a starting price of less than $3,000, at its first quarterly news event of 2004, planned for Feb. 10 in San Francisco, sources familiar with the plan said. The announcement is expected to share the stage with details about how Sun's high-end products are being updated with the company's new UltraSparc IV processor.

Sun is using the Opteron systems to show how much it's departed from its old ways, when it only sold UltraSparc machines and shunned those with "x86" chips from AMD or Intel, said Neil Knox, executive vice president of Sun's Volume Systems Products group.

"It's very important we show to the customer we're extremely serious about this product line. By the end of the calendar year I want to be able to look back and see an entire Opteron line complementing my Solaris-Sparc line," Knox said in an interview this week.

The vast majority of servers sold today are Intel-based machines from Hewlett-Packard, Dell and IBM, and Sun acknowledges it was late to the market. Sun's hope is to distinguish itself from those competitors with Opteron, Knox said. In contrast, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company isn't nearly as ambitious with Intel's Xeon, which Knox said will only be sold in dual-processor configurations.

Starting with two
Knox declined to comment on the v20z announcement but said a dual-processor system will ship in the first quarter of the year and that four-processor and eight-processor Opteron systems will follow.

"We'll start with the product this quarter and continue with the product every quarter the rest of the year," Knox said. He declined to say whether Sun plans to release the eight-processor machine in 2004.

The higher that Opteron moves up Sun's product line, the more it overlaps with UltraSparc products. But Intel servers from Sun's rivals already have been eating into Sun's sales, especially with the arrival of Linux for those who want a Unix-like operating system similar to Sun's Solaris.

A Sun partnership with AMD might well be more palatable than one with Intel, with whom Sun has had a frosty relationship.

Opteron could pressure Intel, in particular because the chip's internal communication electronics enable inexpensive multiprocessor computers, said IDC analyst Mark Melenovsky. "Opteron can come in at a price point that will raise eyebrows in the four-way (four-processor server) market," he said.

Knox championed the Opteron plan within Sun, making the case to Chief Executive Scott McNealy in a series of meetings in the summer of 2003. "We had some very colorful discussions internally," Knox said, but he prevailed.

"Here was an exciting opportunity to take a new set of technologies to put into Sun and take them to the marketplace. We knew our customers were looking to us to be exciting in this space," Knox said. For customers buying Intel-based servers, by contrast, "They can get the same old stuff from the three behemoths," IBM, Dell and HP, he said.

Sun's challenges
But there will be difficulties. For one thing, Sun hasn't yet built much of an x86 server business. As of the fourth quarter of 2003, the sixth quarter after Sun launched its first Xeon servers, the company still hadn't made it into the top 10 shippers of 32-bit x86 servers, according to preliminary data from market researcher Gartner. No. 1 HP sold 442,976 of them, while 10th-place Hitachi sold 7,340, Gartner said.

For another thing, Sun doesn't have Opteron to itself. IBM has been selling its e325 for months for technical computing customers, and sources say it plans to take the machine to a mainstream audience soon. And HP plans to sell Opteron servers, sources have said.

Meanwhile, Intel plans 64-bit upgrades to its Pentium and Xeon lines that will mean Opteron will no longer be the lone 64-bit x86 chip. That could mean tight Intel allies such as Dell could have products comparable to Sun's Opteron systems.

There also are internal challenges within Sun as it adapts to selling hardware designed by others. For years, the company only touted its UltraSparc-based systems, arguing that its hardware and software was better because Sun could concentrate on a single unified product line.

But an eight-processor system could give Sun a leg up over early Opteron enthusiasts. "I think they're trying to steal a bit of thunder away from IBM," said Sageza Group analyst Charles King.

King, though, believes Opteron is something of a sideshow. The bigger battle between IBM and Sun will likely take place later in 2005 when Big Blue's coming Power5-based servers go up against Sun's new UltraSparc IV servers, he said.

UltraSparc IV systems
Clark Masters, executive vice president of Sun's Enterprise Systems Group and Knox's counterpart, said in a December interview that it's his goal to announce the UltraSparc IV systems at the February event.

Sun has committed to shipping UltraSparc IV servers in the first half of the year.

UltraSparc IV combines two UltraSparc III processors on a single slice of silicon. Because the new chip can plug into the same sockets as UltraSparc III, it effectively doubles the number of processors that can be squeezed into a single machine. That would mean a top-end E15K could accommodate the equivalent of 144 processors when configured for business customers.

Masters said Sun plans to introduce UltraSparc IV first in its higher-end systems, those built around its four-processor "Uniboards." These processor modules can be plugged into its 4800, 6800, E12K and E15K servers; one version of Solaris can span Uniboards with both UltraSparc III and IV processors, even running at different clock speeds.

UltraSparc IV will debut at 1.2GHz and will outperform UltraSparc III by a factor of 1.6 to 2, Sun has said.

The Uniboard-based UltraSparc IV systems should all be released in the same quarter, Masters said. The quarter after that, Sun hopes to update the remainder of its UltraSparc server line, he said.

By contrast, it took a year to spread UltraSparc III across the entire line.

"It's a very aggressive ramp rate," Masters said. "There certainly still is schedule risk, but it's mostly blocking and tackling and testing and qualification."