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Sun touts first computers based on new chip

The chipmaker will introduce Sun Fire and Sun Blade, the first computers based on its new UltraSparc III chip, but customers will have to wait several more months before most systems go on sale.

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Stephen Shankland
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Sun Microsystems today introduced Sun Fire and Sun Blade, the first computers based on its new UltraSparc III chip, but customers will have to wait several more months before most systems go on sale.

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Sun feels the heat
Sun Executive VP
John Shoemaker
The first tentative steps into the UltraSparc III product line are the Sun Fire 280R server, code-named "Grover," and the Sun Blade 1000 workstation, code-named "Excalibur," relatively low-end systems that can accommodate up to two of the new CPUs. Until January, though, the Sun Fire will only be available in a limited $89,000 configuration that comes packaged with Sun's T3 "Purple" storage server, said John Shoemaker, executive vice president of Sun's systems products group.

As expected, Shoemaker and Sun chief operating officer Ed Zander took the stage in New York today to unveil the new lower-end products. However, more eyes are focused on the high-end models to come next year.

In the spring, Sun will unveil "StarCat," a successor to the current E10000. It will accommodate as many as 105 CPUs in a number-crunching configuration and 74 CPUs in a configuration for large businesses, Shoemaker said. And using a technology called "coherent memory architecture," Sun will be able to join four such systems to act as a single computer sharing the same memory and operating system.

Before StarCat arrives, Sun will debut its "Daktari" workgroup servers and later its "Serengeti" midrange servers, Shoemaker said today.

"All platforms will be rolled out in the next nine to 12 months, max," Shoemaker said. "We're late compared to our original schedule, but they're not unusual delays compared to the competition."

At the ceremony today, Zander gave his own interpretation of the delay, "People say to me we're late with this product. I think we're early with this product," he said, referring to Sun's market share gains despite its aging UltraSparc II designs.

SunBlade1000 In any case, Sun, like rival Intel, argues that the most of the Internet has yet to be built, leaving plenty of room for future server sales.

"We are probably only in year two or three of a 10- or 15-year build-out of an incredible network," Zander said. "Everything, including these light bulbs, will someday be connected to the Internet in one way or another."

The new computers unveiled today will accommodate UltraSparc III chips running at speeds running from 600 MHz to 1.5 GHz, said Shahin Khan, vice president of product marketing and planning for Sun's system products.

Sun's customers, whipped into a buying frenzy by the growth of the Internet and the increasing computerization of business operations, have given Sun tremendous leeway in making the transition to UltraSparc III. Demand for current UltraSparc II servers has been too strong for the company to keep up with, leaving Sun with a $1.8 billion backlog at the end of last quarter. In contrast, rivals such as Hewlett-Packard and SGI saw demand drop when customers were expecting new systems.

The UltraSparc III systems are a critical element in Sun's effort to retain its No. 1 ranking in the Unix server market. Indeed, Sun has called the launch "Renaissance" and "Medici" internally, a reference to the rebirth of the company.

UltraSparcIII For all its strength, Sun has some vulnerability. It faces fierce competition, chiefly from reinvigorated HP and IBM, but also from SGI, Unisys and Compaq Computer. Unlike Sun, those competitors are betting Intel's long-delayed IA-64 architecture will carry their computers beyond the current RISC chips that power most of today's Unix servers, including Sun's.

HP debuted its Superdome computer last week, though high-end systems won't be shipping for months. IBM's S80 is making inroads into Sun's core customer base, while an improved S80Turbo is due next month.

HP, unsurprisingly, views with delight the prospect that Sun's high-end UltraSparc III server still might be as much as a year away. "That's great for us," said senior marketing director Mark Hudson, though HP doesn't expect to begin shipping Superdome systems until the end of 2000.

Sun has been having problems with the "ecache" memory subsystem on its current servers but is close to fixing it, Shoemaker said. The company has stopped buying components from one of its two suppliers that sold Sun products with the problem and has declared the fix to be its top priority.

Moreover, Sun said it has stopped requiring customers experiencing the problem to sign nondisclosure agreements--legal documents forbidding signees from discussing the information. The company also has released "kernel scrubber" software that reduces the memory problem.

The new UltraSparc III computers are among a raft of Sun announcements coming today. Also coming out of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company:

 On the chip front, Sun will release the UltraSparc IV in the next 18 to 24 months, Shoemaker said. It originally was due in December, according to Sun's earlier chip plans. In addition, Sun will upgrade its UltraSparc III chips with new processor speeds every six months.

The UltraSparc III has 32K of on-chip cache memory, 29 million transistors and a memory controller built in. Sun will continue to upgrade its current UltraSparc II line as well, Shoemaker said.

 The first Sun Blade 1000 and Sun Fire computers will come with 750-MHz CPUs, with 900-MHz models to come later. Sun also will auction 600-MHz Sun Blades on eBay, Shoemaker said.

 Sun will make the Gridware software acquired earlier this year a free download. The new Grid Engine software, part of the trend toward distributed computing, lets companies harness unused processor power in networks of computers.

 The new Sun computers can transfer data to the processors at a speed of 4.80 GB/sec. Each has a secondary cache of 8MB.

 The Sun Fire 280R is a rack-mounted server 7 inches thick--not the thinner 1.75-inch design used in Sun's Netra t1 "Flapjack" systems. The first Sun Fires, packaged with storage, are likely to appeal to Internet and application service provider companies, Shoemaker said.

 Sun has "completely flipped" its price list, cutting the number of product configurations from 18,000 to 192, Shoemaker said. The smaller number of systems lets Sun offer higher reliability, lower prices and faster delivery, he said. Users can still get customized products, but they won't come with the same guarantees, he said.