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Sun heats up hardware battle

Sun Microsystems, gunning for IBM customers, proclaims new products and services that let its high-end servers take another step nearer the turf of the mainframe computer.

The mainframe is dead. Long live the mainframe.

Sun Microsystems, gunning for IBM customers, proclaimed new products and services today that let its high-end servers take another step nearer the turf of the mainframe or "data center" computer.

But in seeking to take over some of the mainframe market, Sun's systems in some ways are coming to resemble the expensive, robust, highly centralized machines run by personnel wearing white coats.

Sun's top-end servers feature the "predictability, discipline, and regimentation" of the traditional data center, said Shahin Khan, of Sun's Data Center Group. But Sun's approach builds on that stability, he said: They believe their servers are robust enough to handle exposure to the unpredictability of the Internet. Or, as Khan puts it, Sun offers the "data"

"It's a two-horse race between IBM and Sun," Khan said. "IBM has the benefit of legacy, but we have the benefit of what's emerging. We think time is on our side."

Among today's announcements are a faster processor for the top-of-the-line Enterprise 10000 "Starfire" server; bigger tape and disk storage systems; upgraded "clustering" software to allow tasks to spread across several computers, and a new Mainframe Affinity Program to make sure Sun hardware can easily be added to mainframe environments.

Sun is "part-way there" in its years-long effort to make its way into mainframe turf, but the company's "data" initiative still isn't going to convince corporate chief information officers to dump their mainframes, said Brad Day, a senior analyst with Giga Information Group.

"For people that have built a much more consolidated data center environment [the mainframe approach], they wouldn't put Sun on their short list," Day said. Sun's effort to "take the data center by storm is just not going to happen."

Today's announcements today follow closely on the heels of Sun's announcement last week of the SunUp program to keep Sun machines and third-party software from crashing.

Although Sun isn't trying to get companies to replace their mainframes, it is trying to make it easier to connect Sun machines to mainframes and prevent customers from buying or upgrading their current mainframes, Khan said.

Through its new Mainframe Affinity Center in Menlo Park, California, Sun will work to understand the mainframe, try out mainframe software on its own systems, and bring mainframe qualities to Sun's Solaris operating system, Khan said. To these ends, Sun has purchased an IBM S/390 mainframe, he said.

Sun's machines, unlike traditional mainframes, have been designed from day one to handle the fluidity and chaos of the network world, Khan said. In addition, Sun systems aren't as expensive as mainframes and have more software available.

To compete in the data center realm, Sun must offer complete, global, end-to-end services that IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and now Compaq Computer offer, Day said. Although Sun is beefing up its internal support programs, it still farms out much local work to third party companies, and that's not what chief information officers want, he said. "CIOs don't have time to buy a box from one vendor, a solution from another, break/fix services from another, and professional services from yet another," Day said.

However, high-end Sun systems will appeal to people who are adding new services such as electronic commerce to their operations, Day said. "This is not an issue of mainframe replacement. A lot of this is new business engagement," he said.

More likely, though, the Sun systems will appeal as a "front end" to traditional data centers, allowing new ways for users to take advantage of the programs running on data centers, such as software controlling the general ledger, accounting, or payroll.

In addition, the high-end Sun systems appeal to companies that are consolidating collections of lower-level servers, he added.

Sun's new offerings

  • Sun has increased the speed of the UltraSparc II chips in its high-end servers from 336 MHz to 400 MHz, Khan said. Prices will remain steady across the product line as the new chips are phased in, he said. For example, the base price of an E10000 machine with 16 CPUs and 4GB of memory will stay at about $900,000.
  • Sun has added a new Fibre Channel-based disk drive array system, the A5200, that can hold 200 gigabytes of data, said Paul Phillips of Sun's Network Storage Division.
  • Sun now offers a "true data center-class" robotic tape backup system that can hold as much as 11.8 terabytes of data and can store data at the rate of 288 gigabytes per hour, Phillips said.
  • Sun is improving its SunCluster software to the a 64-bit version, which will be available mid-March, Khan said. The software allows up to four machines to be tied together so if one fails, another can take over its workload. And when software isn't misbehaving, tasks can be shared across several systems to provide higher performance.
  • Sun, backed by GE Capital, has formed a finance division to help companies buy or lease new systems.