Sun debuts Starcat server

The company will debut its most ambitious product to date in what some analysts say has become a race with IBM for the Unix server market.

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Stephen Shankland
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Sun Microsystems will debut its most ambitious and prestigious product to date on Tuesday, the 106-processor Starcat server, in what some analysts say has become a two-horse race with IBM for the lucrative Unix server market.

The Starcat server--officially called the Sun Fire 15K and shipping in volume during the next three months--will come in four basic configurations ranging from a 16-processor model costing $1.4 million to a 72-processor model priced at $4.1 million, said John Shoemaker, executive vice president of Sun's computer systems group.

All use the new 900MHz UltraSparc III CPU with copper technology, the latest version of a chip at the center of a product overhaul that began a year ago, but the Starcat will accommodate upcoming faster chips without having to throw out the 900MHz parts, he said.

While most business users will choose from the four standard models, those conducting computationally intense tasks such as scheduling airplanes can build a Starcat with as many as 106 processors but less capacity to communicate with outside computers. At times, all these processors will be focused on the same computing task, Shoemaker said, but more commonly the system will be divided into several domains that each handle a different job.

Out of one, many
This partitioning ability underlies Sun's first selling point: Starcat can replace large numbers of lesser servers with a single computer that's easier to manage.

But partitioning a system into independent domains is something IBM developed in its mainframe computers and will bring to its Unix servers as early as next week, when Big Blue unveils its new top-end 32-processor Regatta server.

"The shootout in the high-end Unix market space starts this week," but IBM has stolen some of the leadership on which Sun once had a lock, UBS Warburg analyst Don Young wrote in a Monday report. "Where Sun used to write the rules, the game has changed to a two-company affair."

Unix servers are the biggest part of the server market, accounting for about $29 billion of the $60 billion overall server market in 2000. Servers are the powerful computers used to handle network tasks such as recording credit card transactions, hosting Web sites or recording corporate finances.

A package deal
One reason high-end server sales are so coveted is they rarely end with the computer itself. "High-end computers typically drive demand for storage, services and software," Buckingham Research analyst Jay Stevens wrote in a recent report.

Initial Starcat customers include Boeing, GE Capital, NTT Data, PSA Peugeot, Epson and the San Diego Supercomputing Center, Sun said.

IBM is the largest server seller, but in the Unix server market it remains in third place behind No. 1 Sun and No. 2 Hewlett-Packard. However, amid the economic hard times that have hammered HP and Sun, Big Blue gained Unix server market share in the second quarter of 2001, while HP and Sun lost ground.

Don't count HP out, though, said Jean Bozman, a research director at IDC. For one thing, it has a large base of customers, and it's easier to upgrade from one HP machine to another than to some other company's server. And while sales of its top-end Superdome were slower than the company hoped, the company's conservative approach to recording Superdome revenue means more systems have been installed than appears just from sales data.

"It's still a horse race between the top three," Bozman said. "In the midrange and high-end market, market share doesn't shift overnight."

The competitive pressures on Sun extend elsewhere. Fujitsu Technology Solutions in July began selling a 128-processor server that runs Sun's version of Unix, Solaris, but that uses the company's own Sparc64 chips.

Starcat, though, is aimed not just at Unix servers but also at mainframes, the expensive stalwarts at the top end of IBM's server line. Sun also will announce Tuesday that it has bought a division of software maker Critical Path to acquire software that lets customers run their mainframe software on Unix servers.

Sun doesn't shy away from the fact that it believes mainframes point in the direction Unix servers will go, but the company argues that IBM hasn't been able to transfer mainframe capabilities to the rest of its server line fast enough. "They've not been able to move that expertise to their Unix world," Shoemaker said. "On the Unix side, we're years ahead."

Peter McCaffrey, part of IBM's mainframe marketing team, disagrees. "We essentially invented partitioning technology," he said. "Sun in many regards is shooting for where we were 20 years ago. Putting a little bit of mainframe (technology) in everything we do across the other product lines is a whole lot easier than to reinvent the wheel, which is where Sun's going."

The Starcat can be divided into as many as 18 partitions, each of which can be changed in size without having to reboot the system, Shoemaker said.

StarCat features
In addition, Starcat has several other features:

 Starcat is about three to five times faster than its E10000 "Starfire" predecessor, but Sun plans to continue selling the older machine, which unlike Starcat can run older versions of Solaris still used by many customers.

 The system can simultaneously use 900MHz processors with faster models yet to come. However, each partition requires all processors to run at the same speed, so faster chips will have to run in a partition of their own.

 Using upcoming Sun software in combination with a high-speed connection technology, customers will be able to join more than one Starcat into a single, larger system.

 A "crossbar" design uses more than four miles of wires to connect the CPU boards to each other and to input-output subsystems, said Steve MacKay, chief architect in Sun's computer systems group.

 A "Uniboard" design lets the four-processor circuit boards of the Starcat be used in many lesser UltraSparc III servers, including the 3800, 4800, 4810 and 6800. This flexibility drastically simplifies for Sun the headaches of manufacturing, testing and sales, Shoemaker said, while allowing customers to swap boards from one server to another if necessary.

 The system supports 576GB of memory.

 Sun is selling the system in bundles along with the new StorEdge 9960 storage system, a top-end Hitachi Data Systems storage product that sports Sun's logo.