Sun to pump up high-end servers

Sun Microsystems is set to unveil upgrades to its high-end servers on Monday, as it struggles to fight off advances by IBM and Hewlett-Packard in the cutthroat server market.

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Stephen Shankland
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Sun Microsystems will unveil a series of upgrades to its high-end servers Monday, including faster 1.2GHz processors and the ability to switch out many components without shutting the computer down, sources familiar with the company's plans said.

The top-end improvements, called "Starcat+" after the code name of the company's top-end 15K "Starcat" servers, are part of a deluge of news coming Monday from the Santa Clara, Calif.-based server maker. The company also will cut prices on midrange and high-end machines as much as 35 percent, release its new 12-processor Sun Fire v1280 and its new "blade" servers, and improve its N1 plan for managing large quantities of computing hardware.

However, sources expect Sun will discontinue its Sun Fire 3800 server, the smallest machine in the company's "midframe" line with higher-end features, but a model that overlapped with the less expensive v880 and the new v1280 systems.

Sun declined to comment on Monday's plans.

The product overhaul comes at a critical time for Sun, a company striving to maintain its No. 1 ranking in the marketplace for Unix servers, high-powered machines that handle chores such as Hershey Foods' business transactions or the Mt. Sinai Hospital's database of protein molecule interactions. Sun is fighting to return to long-term profitability, something that's eluded it since surging sales and plump profit margins of the late 1990s were replaced by today's constrained buying and aggressive discounting.

At the same time that the Unix server market has been shrinking, competition has been intensifying. IBM continues its parade of new systems, which it can subsidize with revenue from its software and services businesses, while Hewlett-Packard has maintained its strength in midrange systems and can lean on its profitable printer business for support. Dell Computer and the arrival of the Linux operating system ensure that there's no refuge to be found selling lower-end systems.

It's essential that Sun deliver its promised products soon, Giga Information Group analyst Brad Day said.

"If they don't come out with these products--with quantity shipments this quarter and next quarter--these salivating HP and IBM (salespeople) will take full advantage of that time-to-market constraint," Day said. "Both IBM and HP--they're hungry."

Sun's argument to customers is that the company provides preconfigured systems that install easily and come with much of the software customers need to get work done. Sun also promises to stay ahead of the curve with heavy research-and-development spending--particularly in next-generation Internet software and in its N1 plan to gather large groups of servers, networking gear and storage systems into what amounts to a single gigantic computer.

Even Sun's competitors openly respect the company's technology. But they believe Sun is backed into a corner.

"Nobody has ever said Sun does not create some really cool stuff," HP spokesman Mark Stouse said. However, today's buying climate isn't all "about features and functions and speeds and feeds. It's about having the resources necessary to guarantee their road map going forward," he said.

In the 1990s, Sun had two broad classes of servers: lower-end and midrange systems the company designed, and the high-end 64-processor E10000 the company acquired from Cray. The UltraSparc III-based products, which began arriving two years ago, have begun filling in the gaps between these two extremes. Sun's announcement Monday continues to smooth out the product lines and move Sun's systems toward the gold standard of reliable hardware: IBM's mainframe line.

Faster chips
Sun plans a faster 1.2GHz chip for the top half of its Sun Fire line--the "midframe" models including the 12-processor 4800, 24-processor 6800, 36-processor 12K and 72-processor 15K. (The 12K and 15K can accommodate more processors if input-output abilities are sacrificed.)

The new chip is faster but dissipates 30 percent less heat than predecessors, sources said--a key feature for keeping servers from suffering data corruption and crash problems that arrive with overheating.

Sun also is working on its UltraSparc IV chip, a product that will fit into existing UltraSparc III servers when it arrives later this year. That processor will be a "dual-core" model that packs two processors onto a single slice of silicon, something IBM has with its Power4 chip and HP plans with its PA-RISC 8800 "Mako" chip.

According to sources close to Sun, the new processors will be available on the 4800 and up, but not on the eight-processor 3800. That doesn't bode well for the 3800, which sources familiar with Sun's plans say will be phased out.

The 3800 has overlapping capabilities compared to some lower-end Sun systems. At present, a 3800 with eight 1.05GHz processors and 32GB of memory lists for $357,000, according to Sun's online store. A v880 with eight 900MHz processors and 32GB of memory lists for $130,000.

Current midframe systems can run several independent operating systems on each machine, a feature called "partitioning" that makes it easier for a single system to replace several lesser machines. In addition, the midframe products use the same processor boards, letting customers move computing power from one system to another as needed.

IBM eagerly jumped on the product changes as evidence that Sun hasn't been successful in driving mainframe features--partitioning chief among them--into lower-priced machines.

"Sun's announcement of the v1280 and the abandoning of the 3800 compromises the midframe concept that Sun made a major push on just a short time ago," Big Blue said in a statement. "It seems that they are unable to offer customers true mainframe reliability at a reasonable price." IBM offers partitioning, though of a different type than Sun's, on its lower-end machines.

Top-end improvements
For the 12K and 15K, Sun will introduce version 2 of its "capacity on demand" (COD) program, which lets customers switch on and pay for previously unused processors when computing requirements demand it--rather than having them pay for idle processors. By axing certain fees, the new COD program will eliminate the price premium required by the current program, which charges companies to switch on additional processors--a requirement that can cost more than if the processors are purchased active in the first place.

Another new feature for the two top servers is a part of Solaris 9 called "memory placement optimization," which works to speed performance by placing data in the banks of memory nearest the processors that need it.

Sun also will improve the ability to reconfigure the systems without shutting them down, letting users upgrade processors, memory and input-output hardware as the machine continues to function. Input-output systems will boost the internal data transfer by about 50 percent, while a single partition in the system will now be able to hold a whopping 512GB of memory.

Part of the Sun price cuts are made possible by the use of less expensive cabinets for the high-end systems, which will lower entry costs, sources said.