Sun debuts midrange "Starkitty" server

update The company unveils its Unix server, a 52-processor machine, which plugs a gap in its product line that Hewlett-Packard and IBM were able to exploit.

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update SAN FRANCISCO--Sun unveiled its "Starkitty" Unix server Tuesday, a 52-processor machine, which plugs a gap in the company's product line that Hewlett-Packard and IBM were able to exploit.

The machine, with as many as 52 900MHz UltraSparc III processors, 288GB of memory and a price tag of about $750,000, is half the size of Sun's top-end Sun Fire 15K "Starcat" system, which the company introduced in late 2001. It's also less expensive. The Starcat system costs more than $1 million.

As expected, the system lies between the 24-processor Sun Fire 6800--which costs about $500,000--and the 15K Sun Fire. Sun is aiming the new system at IBM's 32-processor p690 Regatta and HP's 64-processor Superdome.

"We've never in our history had a product that really fit the half-million to million-dollar price point for the enterprise," said Clark Masters, general manager of Sun's Enterprise system Products group, adding that this slice of the market has annual sales of $4 billion according to research firm IDC. "It's a new market for Sun and an incremental business for Sun," he said, speaking at a news conference here.

The new midrange system is important for Sun, which has been losing market share to resurgent IBM and which must still fend off HP during a time when the recession and reduced technology spending has made competition particularly intense. The Unix server market shrank 18.7 percent from $25.3 billion in 2000 to $20.6 billion in 2001, according to analyst firm Gartner.

Sun, which Tuesday lowered prices for many of its servers, is starting to feel the pressure of IBM's encroachment. According to IDC, Sun sold 89 Sun Fire 15K systems in the fourth quarter while IBM sold 310 p690 Regattas. And Sun is losing market share in the overall Unix server market while IBM is gaining, Gartner said.

The Sun Fire 15K can accommodate as many as 106 processors, but business users hooking the systems up to databases are expected to top out at 72. The additional CPUs (central processing units) plug into slots that otherwise would be used for communications links to storage and networking systems. Likewise, with the new Sun Fire 12K, business users aren't expected to go beyond 36 processors, a Sun representative said.

Sun has shipped nearly 400 Sun Fire 15K systems since its launch, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company said. Customers include IntercontinentalExchange, Kyoto University, Ocwen Technology Xchange, Reliant Resources and the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

Sun also has sold 2,500 of its midrange Sun Fire 6800 systems in the year since they were introduced, Chief Competitive Officer Shahin Khan said.

With the release of Solaris 9 coming in May, the new Sun systems will catch up to a feature Hewlett-Packard and IBM have built into their Unix servers: software partitioning, which enables a single machine to be split into more independent systems. Currently, Sun has only hardware partitioning, with the smallest partition having four processors.

Partitioning, a feature that's long been available in stalwart mainframe servers, is being adapted by Sun and others for Unix and more recently Intel servers. It's a key selling point for companies trying to market a server as being good for replacing numerous smaller ones with a single machine that's easier to manage.

The entire Sun Fire server line shares a design element, the "Uniboard" that houses four processors and up to 32GB of memory. Today's Uniboards run with 900MHz UltraSparc III processors, but future models will accommodate faster UltraSparc IIIs, upcoming UltraSparc IVs, and future chips with two processors etched onto a single piece of silicon, Masters said.

Neither Sun or IBM is backing down in the war of words. "We think the p690 on a good day is slightly better than a 6800," Khan said Tuesday, while the top technologist behind IBM's Power4 design has criticized the Sun Fire line as using an outdated design.

IBM favors its Power4 chip, which has two processors etched into a single chip, with four such chips built into a "multichip module" with hundreds of dedicated high-speed connections joining the processors. IBM says the design lets it build powerful systems for less expense than Sun can, but Sun countered Tuesday that the fact that the Power4 processors have to share high-speed cache memory lowers their efficiency. One dual-CPU chip has the effective power of 1.5 to 1.8 stand-alone CPUs, Sun said.

Masters said Tuesday that IBM's multichip module technology is "exotic and expensive," while Khan predicted competitors will follow Sun's Uniboard strategy.

For customers willing to pay, the Sun Fire 12K can be upgraded into a 15K, Sun said.

This is possible because the new system is essentially Sun Fire 15K with some of its innards removed--specifically, the electronics boards with custom chips that connect processor boards with the system's internal communications backbone, Masters said.

Adding the parts to upgrade to a full-fledged 15K isn't simple, though it can be done while the existing system is up and running, Masters said. "It's not a golden screwdriver" situation, he said, where a Sun technician can show up at a customer site, quickly convert a 12K to a 15K through a minor tweak, and charge the customer lots of money.