For Sun, the workstation market will be characterized by survival of the fittest--and that means moving closer to the PC camp.
In an effort to blunt growing sales of cheap NT workstations, Sun is adopting peripheral component interconnect (PCI) interface technology and this winter will release a new workstation that costs less than $5,000, code-named Darwin, likely based on as-yet released integrated "UltraSparc II(i)" technology.
PCI is widely used in the lower-cost Intel-based personal computer world and increasingly in Macintosh computers as well. PCI is a "bus," or data path, used to transfer data in a computer.
Sun's efforts will likely make it easier to own a Sparc/Solaris workstation and allow the company to compete more effectively in a market it helped pioneer.
The company is distinguishing itself by adopting a high-speed version of the PCI bus that operates at 66 MHz on a 64-bit data path. Typically, PCs from companies such as Compaq Computer, IBM, and Dell Computer have a 32-bit PCI bus running at 33 MHz.
By adopting the PCI, Sun is moving over to the industry standard, according to Robert Novak, general manager of power desktop workstations at Sun. Until now, Sun has used its own Sbus, which it developed in the late 1980s. "Sun invented the Sbus because we needed it," he said. Improvements in PCI have essentially eradicated the major advantages of the Sbus.
"The PC workstations are eating into the Unix marketplace at the entry level, and it's only a matter of time until they get into the midrange," said Peter ffoulkes, an analyst at Dataquest "They have to be able to take on those PC workstations at every level."
Since their debut last year, workstations powered by Pentium Pro and Pentium II processors running the NT operating system have seen substantial growth, primarily because they cost much less than their Unix counterparts. The Compaq Professional Workstation 6000 with a 266-MHz Pentium II processor, for example, starts at $4,200. Dual-processor models are available for just over $11,000.
The Ultra 30, scheduled to be announced tomorrow, is the first PCI-based Sun workstation. It contains four PCI slots, one of them 64-bit running at 66 MHz. The other three slots are 33-MHz PCI slots. The systems come with either a 300-MHz or 250-MHz UltraSparc microprocessor.
The single-processor Ultra 30 workstations will carry estimated prices of $21,495 and $16,495, respectively. The company will also release a series of PCI network interface cards under the Sun brand.
Although NT appears to be the target competition, Sun will also begin to move more strongly into the market for workstations used at oil and gas companies, traditional strongholds of rival Silicon Graphics (SGI), Novak said.
Resellers and manufacturers were generally upbeat about the move to PCI because it eliminates compatibility problems. "Every third party company manufactures things in a PCI bus now," said Ryan Martens, vice president of marketing at Avitek, a Boulder, Colorado-based developer. "It's cheaper for Sun too."
In addition, Sun will come out with a workstation priced at $5,000 below. At that price, Sun can compete against Windows NT workstation vendors such as Compaq yet at the same time tout the stability and maturity of the Solaris operating system.
Although Sun declined to confirm the processor that will be used in the sub-$5,000 workstation, all indications point to the UltraSparc II(i). The UltraSparc II(i) is a low-cost, integrated motherboard, or circuit board, to be delivered later this year, according to Pierre von Clemm, product line manager for UltraSparc at Sun. The new board will adopt a version of the UltraSparc II microprocessor and incorporate other types of processors, such as graphics processors for improved video, said sources.
"It will be of the UltraSparc family," he added.
The new line will cost about the same as Sun's current low-end machines but will deliver more performance. Sun's lowest-priced workstation, the Sparc5, now sells for $4,695 but is based on technology from a previous generation.
Other Solaris workstation companies said they would follow Sun into the low-cost arena.
"We will have UltraSparc workstations that will be competitive with the Intel counterpart," said David Van David Van Beveren, president of EIS Computers, a workstation manufacturer in Moorpark, California. EIS, he added, will try to ship Solaris workstations priced around $4,000.
"When you eliminate the cost difference, there is a good case for adopting Solaris," he said.