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Sun servers to get new multi-OS abilities

With logical domains, Sun's Niagara systems will catch up this year to rival Unix and x86 servers.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems later this year will introduce virtualization technology to let its newest Sparc-based servers run multiple operating systems simultaneously, thus catching up to a feature already built into Unix machines from rivals IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

The technology, called logical domains, will be added to Sun's two UltraSparc T1 "Niagara"-based servers--the T2000 server Sun began shipping in December and the T1000 it plans to begin shipping in February, said David Yen, executive vice president of Sun's Scalable Systems Group.

"This calendar year, on the T2000 and T1000, we will introduce our first generation of virtualization to bring people beyond the container technology Solaris 10 already offers," Yen said in a meeting with reporters and analysts at Sun's offices here. "We have real customers demanding it," particularly in the financial services industry, he added in a later interview.

Running multiple operating systems is useful for making a single computer more efficient and is a major trend in the server market today. Building the feature into Sun servers will address a key piece that's been missing from the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company's mainstay product line.

Sun is feverishly working to restore its server group's fortunes. The company's server shipments dropped 6 percent in its most recent quarter.

To run multiple operating systems on a Sparc server now, Sun has offered only hardware partitions, a relatively inflexible method that lets higher-end Unix servers be subdivided into four-processor partitions. At the other end of the spectrum, a Solaris 10 operating system feature called containers lets a single instance of the operating system appear to be several--but that technology offers less protective isolation for different applications.

"This is something that Sun has needed to do for a long time in order to get parity with HP and IBM," said Gabrial Consulting analyst Dan Olds. The next step will be to make sure the feature fits into higher-level management tools, he said. "They need to show customers that their systems have the ability to manage IT resources according to business need--without human intervention--in order to catch up to HP and IBM."

The movement to run multiple operating systems on a single server has been maturing long enough that even comparatively lowly x86 servers have the ability through use of VMware's virtual machine software. And an open-source software project called Xen is under way with similar features.

Xen is the future, Yen said. Although the company developed its own logical domain software, Sun eventually expects it will become one with Xen.

"Eventually we expect Xen will get industrywide acceptance, and we'd like to be part of it. Some time, probably in the second half of 2007, we will merge," Yen said.

John Fowler, who as head of Sun's Network Systems Group is Yen's counterpart, said Xen for his x86 server group is gradually maturing.

"A lot depends on Xen 3.0 getting done. This is not up to marketing intent but to the engineering gods," Fowler said. "This kind of software is pretty hard. There's rocket science in elements of the stack and in making sure you get it right and it doesn't fall over."

Xen and operating system companies "have talked optimistically about this spring" for Xen 3.0, but "I think it'll take a little bit longer. I think this year is very possible," Fowler said.

Firming up firmware
The logical domain feature will be available in an update to the T1000 and T2000 firmware, software that runs at a lower level than the operating system, Yen said. The update won't degrade performance or require customers to recertify their software, he added.

That firmware has another important function, Yen said. It provides a new foundation for Solaris. As Sun worked to move Solaris to x86 chips such as Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron, the company realized it needed a more flexible connection between the operating system and the chip it's using. The firmware provides that new interface, he said.

"All Solaris has to do is talk to the API (application programming interface) presented by that layer," he said.

The layer also will ease development for the programmers who work on Linux for Sparc-based computers, Yen said. "To facilitate Linux porting...we will publish the API for the internal firmware," he said.

Sun will release the underlying hardware description of the UltraSparc T1 by the end of March, he reiterated. And Sun will also release its UltraSparc 2005 specifications, which detail extra features Sun's chips have that aren't in the Sparc V9 standard promulgated by the Sparc International organization.

Sun has shipped thousands of T2000 systems so far, Yen said. Most customers are buying just one or two for evaluation purposes, but a global telecommunications company placed an order on Tuesday for 75 of the machines, he said.

Yen said that late this quarter or early next quarter, T2000 and T1000 customers will get a new option: an expansion device that increases the number of input-output slots that are available.