Low-cost Sun workstations arrive

To counter the growth of Windows NT workstations, Sun is releasing workstations that combine new processor technology and low prices.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
To counter the growing popularity of Windows NT workstations, Sun Microsystems (SUNW) is releasing new workstations tomorrow that combine new processor technology and low prices, as earlier reported by CNET's NEWS.COM, as well as a new high-end workstation.

The Ultra 5 and the Ultra 10 workstations comprise Sun's beachhead in the low-cost arena. The Ultra 5 will be priced less than $3,000 (without monitor) and will contain a 270-MHz UltraSparc II(i) processor, a minimum of 64MB of memory, and a 4GB hard drive, said sources close to the company.

The Ultra 10 will cost under $7,000 (no monitor) but run on a 300-MHz UltraSparc II(i) processor module and be capable of handling more memory and either 4GB or 8GB hard drives. Both models comes with low-cost PCI (peripheral connect interface) technology. PCI technology is a data transfer "bus" scheme widely used in personal computers.

"We have come out with machines that have achieved unprecedented price performance. Sun's entry level machines kick in where PCs top out," said Robert Novak, group manager, power desktop marketing for Sun. "You will see street-level pricing from Sun this day forward."

At the high end, Sun will roll out the Ultra 60, a graphics intensive workstation that will feature up to two 300-MHz UltraSparc II processors, 2GB of memory and capacity for 18GB of disk space. The minimum configuration of the Ultra 60 will sell for under $20,000.

The "integrated" UltraSparc-II(i) processor module is one of the ways Sun has been able to reduce costs on the Ultra 5 and Ultra 10. The modules combine a 64-bit UltraSparc processor with other functions such as a memory controller onto a single piece of silicon, said a Sun spokesman.

Putting more functions on single sheet of silicon generally reduces costs by reducing the number of independent parts that need to be manufactured and installed. The UltraSparc-II(i) processor runs at 270 MHz or 300 MHz and contains a 66-MHz PCI bus.

"It's aimed at mid-range workstations," said Linley Gwennap, editor-in-chief of The Microprocessor Report, of the integrated module. "HP has a similar integrated part in their workstations."

Integrating components in this manner is expected to lower costs, and also increase availability of parts, Sun has said.

Although the company has traditionally racked up fairly substantial revenues from the low end of the workstation market, this segment began to dry up for Sun and other Unix vendors in 1996, said Dan Dolan, an analyst at Dataquest.

Intel-based vendors such as Compaq started to release workstations based on Microsoft's Windows NT operating system, which found fairly quick acceptance among customers, he said. On top of that, Sun's only workstation in the $5,000 range was the SparcStation 5, which was based on aging technology.

"The problem is that NT became the new definition of 'low-end,'" he said.

While the Unix workstation segment remains secure at its high end, overall workstation growth has come in the low-cost NT sector, he added. In 1996, Unix vendors shipped some 708,000 workstations, accounting for $11 billion in revenue. For the first half of 1997, Unix shipments accounted for 355,000 units and $5.6 billion in revenue, roughly on pace with 1996.

NT workstation sales, however, are growing geometrically. Slightly more than 132,000 NT workstations were shipped in all of 1996. In the first half of 1997 alone, 133,000 were shipped. 1996 revenue came to $945 million; first-half revenue for 1997 came to $912 million.