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Sun touts Opteron server, Linux desktop

Sun Microsystems brings AMD's Opteron into its server family and announces a deal in China that's expected to boost its Linux desktop software.

LAS VEGAS--Sun Microsystems introduced Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron into its server family and announced a deal in China that's expected to boost its Linux desktop software.

As expected, Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy on Monday showed off two servers that use the processor during a keynote speech at the Comdex trade show here, becoming the second major company to adopt the chip. IBM already has announced Opteron servers, but its model at present is intended only for the narrower high-performance technical computing markets.


What's new:
Sun Microsystems introduces Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron into its server family and announces a deal in China that's expected to boost its Linux desktop software.

Bottom line:
Adding a third processor architecture increases the hardware Sun will have to support and also raises marketing complications. The deal with the China Standard Software Co. will put the Java Desktop System on up to 1 million desktops in 2004.

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Also at the show, McNealy said that Sun has signed a deal under which the China Standard Software Co. (CSSC), a consortium of companies supported by the Chinese government, will use Sun's Linux desktop software, called the Java Desktop System.

"We're going to immediately roll out the Java Desktop System to between a half million and a million desktops in 2004," McNealy said. "It makes us instantaneously the No. 1 Linux desktop player on the planet."

Sun's Opteron servers will be sent to the company's hardware and software partners this year, and the products will ship in volume in the first half of 2004, McNealy said. A version of Sun's Solaris operating system specifically for the servers will ship in August, said John Loiacono, Sun's vice president of operating systems.

"We are announcing today we're going to be supporting the AMD Opteron architecture with some new servers," McNealy said, adding later that the systems are of Sun's own design. One server had a single processor and another "significantly more than one processor," he said, but declined to provide further details. However, a source close to the company said Sun is planning dual- and four-processor Opteron servers.

Sun's Opteron systems will be general-purpose models, able to run business programs such as the Java Enterprise System, Sun's server software collection, McNealy said. "This will be one screaming Java Enterprise System architecture," he promised.

AMD long has made sure its chips are compatible with the "x86" processors from rival Intel, but with Opteron, it took a different path. That chip is a 64-bit design that can address much more memory than 32-bit chips such as AMD's Athlon or Intel's Xeon. Intel thus far has advocated use of its Itanium processor for 64-bit computing, a chip that runs only Xeon software slowly.

Adding a third processor architecture increases the hardware Sun will have to support with its increasingly important software products. Sun previously boasted of having "all the wood behind one arrowhead," putting almost all its emphasis on Solaris on its own UltraSparc processors.

Now it will have more combinations of operating systems and processors to deal with. Sun has Solaris on UltraSparc and Intel x86 processors and Linux on x86 processors. And, in the future, it will have Solaris and Linux for Opteron as well.

Sun argues that customers don't worry about the processor and operating system, instead writing server applications that run on a Java and Web services foundation that doesn't change from one computer to another.

The move also raises marketing complications, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.

"This wasn't an easy decision for Sun. One of the convenient ways Sun could separate Sparc from Intel-based servers was (that) Sparc was 64-bit and Intel was the 32-bit. That created a certain comfortable separation between the two lines within Sun," Haff said. "With Opteron, that neat distinction goes away. They're going to have to work that much harder to clearly position these products against each other, which they haven't done a very good job at so far."

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Opteron will let Sun devote more funding to its chip multithreading (CMT) technology, designed to let its UltraSparc processors handle simultaneous tasks more gracefully, Neil Knox, executive vice president of Sun's high-volume server products, said in a news conference after McNealy's speech.

The use of Opteron "allows us to take the research and development and push more aggressively in the (CMT) direction," Knox said. At the same time, he said, Sun won't back away from using UltraSparc in low-end systems.

Get the message?
Opteron is an example of Sun pushing ahead to offer new technology, McNealy said. Getting the company's message out has been difficult, he acknowledged, referring to skepticism that has cropped up as a result of the company's financial troubles. Sun has seen two major rounds of layoffs and 10 consecutive quarters in which revenue declined compared with the year-earlier results.

"Sometimes we have to step above the noise and restate our relevance," he said.

McNealy derided a letter sent by Merrill Lynch analyst Steve Milunovich, who recently advised radical changes to Sun's business.

"I'm getting a lot of advice. Everybody's writing me letters," McNealy said. "One person suggested we unload Java. There's a good idea. Ford, why don't you unload cars?"

In the midst of a trade show that grew up on the success of the PC industry, McNealy again touted his belief that PCs would be replaced eventually by "thin clients," such as the Sun Ray, a machine with a network connection to a server in which all software actually runs.

Apologizing to AMD CEO Hector Ruiz, McNealy said he believes thin rays are a more efficient use of computing resources, with a single server processor supporting 20 to 200 users, compared with "space heater" PCs that each have their own processor.

The Sun Ray today requires a wired network connection, but Sun is working on versions that use a home DSL (digital subscriber line) connection or a wireless network as well.

McNealy also touted Sun's Java Card technology, a tiny computer inside a credit card-size piece of plastic. Such cards are used to identify all citizens in Belgium and Thailand, McNealy said. The card itself "is more powerful than the Apple II," he said.