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Sun serves up "Flapjack" server

Sun Microsystems unveils a new, compact, and relatively inexpensive server for Internet service companies that need to cram dozens of machines into a small area.

Sun Microsystems unveiled a new, compact, and relatively inexpensive server for Internet service companies that need to cram dozens of machines into a small area--but the "Wintel" world isn't standing idly by.

Sun said its new Netra t1, which has been under development for a year under the code-name Flapjack, is aimed at network service providers such as Digex that need racks and racks of servers to handle client Internet use. The Netra t1 costs as low as $5,000, measures 1.75 inches thick, and fills a hole in Sun's product line, according to Sun and its partners. Customers will be able to start buying it in August.

The computer is cheap for a full-featured Sun server, and puts Sun more squarely in competition with dedicated server appliances from Intel-based computers running Microsoft Windows. Sun's announcement comes as PC Expo opens, a three-day convention largely centered around the good old boys of the Wintel world.

Indeed, Compaq, one of the Wintel standard-bearers, introduced a new service today for helping companies set up Internet offerings such as email and chat groups using Wintel servers.

"We don't position the Netra t1 as a dedicated Internet appliance," said Sun's Neil Knox, but said that resellers of Sun hardware are likely to set up the machine to accomplish specific tasks.

Server appliances are geared to perform one job well, offering the advantage of being either faster and/or cheaper than a general-purpose server. Customer needs for a presence on the Internet has driven server appliance products such as Compaq's TaskSmart servers and similar products from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dell, and a host of smaller companies.

Windows isn't as dominant in the server appliance world as it is on desktops. IBM is readying a single-purpose skinny server line called "Pizzazz" that uses AIX, IBM's version of Unix. In addition, many server appliances use the Linux operating system, which is like Unix but doesn't cost as much.

Though not optimized for a single job, the Netra t1 will be good for doing just one job, such as protecting internal networks or authenticating network users, said David Lawler, product manager of the Netra.

The Sun offering will compete with Internet appliance caching servers from Dell and Compaq, said Lenny Rosenthal of Inktomi, a company that helped Sun design the machine. Rosenthal said the machines will be good for "caching" information, the process of storing information on widely distributed servers to speed up access to far-flung Internet users who may not be close to the server that's orginating the information.

Charlie Boyle, director of research and development at Digex, said the servers will be useful as a front end to a more powerful database server in the back end. "A front-end Web server should be small, reliable, and cheap," he said.

Though Flapjack is general-purpose machine, Sun is keeping its eye on machines tailored for single tasks, said Knox. Sun has ideas on providing "some form of packaging of Solaris that would be streamlined," he said, referring to Sun's Unix operating system.

The Flapjack strategy of taking on Wintel mirrors Sun's moves last year with its Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 workstations, in which Sun found a way to lower the price of the Unix machines to keep more competitive with the comparatively inexpensive Wintel machines from HP, Dell, Compaq, IBM, SGI, and others.

The low-end workstation has been successful, analysts have said, with Sun more units than expected.

Like the low-end Ultra workstations, Sun will sell the Netra t1 online, Knox said, though he declined to say what proportion of sales he expects to come from direct sales.

Sun's Netra t1 uses a 360-MHz or 440-MHz UltraSparc IIi chip, hot-swappable hard drives, and two Ethernet ports. The machine will be available beginning in August, Sun said.