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Sun's blade servers coming this year

The company, which is trailing some competitors to the market with super-thin "blade" servers, will begin to catch up when it releases its products in the second half of the year.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Sun Microsystems, trailing some competitors to the market with super-thin "blade" servers, will begin to catch up when it releases its products in the second half of the year.

Sun will release two types of blades this year: those using Intel chips and the Linux operating system, and those using Sun's UltraSparc chips and its Solaris operating system, said Colin Fowles, director of Sun's blade business team.

It's an important move for Sun, whose bread and butter is selling the networked computers called servers, comparatively powerful machines that handle everything from hosting Web sites to conducting all the trades on the New York Stock Exchange. Sun was beaten to the blade market by competitors including Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and start-ups such as RLX Technologies.

Sun's machines--several single-processor servers in a cabinet 5.25 inches thick--are part of the first wave of Sun's blades, Fowles said. In 2003, Sun will release a dual-processor model and then more radical "second wave" designs, he said.

Sun isn't the only one with fevered blade development under way. Dell Computer will release its blade servers in mid-2002, said Joe Sekel, a designer in Dell's server architecture group. IBM plans to unsheathe its "Excalibur" blades early in the fourth quarter, said Intel server Chief Technology Officer Tom Bradicich.

In the quest to squeeze more computing power into less floor space, companies are buying ever-thinner servers, bolted to racks in collections that resemble six-foot-tall stacks of pizza boxes. Blades take this concept one step further.

Blades--each one a circuit board with memory, a CPU (central processing unit) and a hard disk--are stacked side by side with a single enclosure like books in a bookshelf.

Remaking servers
Blades are reshaping how the industry thinks about servers. The sheer number of blades that can be installed--200 or more servers in a space about the size of a refrigerator--poses challenges but offers opportunities as well.

There are the engineering difficulties, such as attaching cables and keeping CPUs from overheating. Worse, there are management headaches for installing software updates, finding out which servers are idle and which overloaded, or tracking down which of a hundred systems just had a hard-drive failure.

"The cost of the hardware is a lot less than the cost of administering that particular hardware," Fowles said.

But blades offer advantages as well. In the near term, blades offer a way to handle networking chores such as dishing up Web pages by the millions, running firewalls to keep intruders out of corporate networks, and housing DNS (domain name system) indexes that enable one computer to find another on the Internet.

In the longer term, grander visions prevail. Companies such as IBM and Oracle are revamping their databases to run not only on mammoth multiprocessor servers but also on groups of smaller servers as well. And some predict a day when the personality of each blade can be changed to adapt to changing workloads.

Sun picked a good time to be late, analysts say. For one thing, blade servers are chiefly useful for heavy-duty Web sites, and customers in the current economic gloom aren't spending as extravagantly as they were during the go-go Internet years.

"We don't see any revenue potential until 2003," Fowles said.

But the delay does matter, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. The systems may not be selling as fast as server makers had initially hoped, but customers are getting a chance to evaluate the systems and make sure software works well.

New features
Sun's blades have features that the company believes will help compensate for its slower start, such as built-in network switches and management functions.

Each blade has a management chip that can be used to switch the blade off and on, monitor its temperature, and store its identification. And the enclosure, or "shelf," that holds the blades has another management chip that manages its batch of blades and serves as a communications conduit to the central server that controls it.

Each 16-blade shelf has eight Ethernet ports joined to a network switch built by Broadcom, Fowles said. Building the network switch into the chassis speeds communications between one blade and another, cutting down on the number of cables protruding from the shelf.

Both the switch and shelf management chips have built-in backups in case the primary fails, Fowles added.

The extra features will add to the cost of the system, but Sun still is aiming to beat Compaq's price. Blades are expected to cost about $1,000 apiece, while the shelf holding them likely will be in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $6,000, he said.

The Intel-based blades are something of a departure for Sun, which for most of its history has shunned its rivals' chips in favor of its own UltraSparc line. But the company began selling Intel servers running Linux after its acquisition of Cobalt Networks.

Cobalt also was the route that introduced Linux, a clone of Unix, into Sun's product line. Sun initially said Linux would run only on Cobalt servers where nobody could tell what operating system was in use, but the company now has reversed course to fully embrace Linux.

The Cobalt group, which is responsible for Sun's version of Linux, is busy removing proprietary elements that make Cobalt Linux different from most versions of Linux, Fowles said. "They're getting rid of their hooks," he said.

Sun has strong partnerships with Solaris software companies and will undertake joint work to develop blades with specific software for specific jobs. But Linux and blades are very popular, Fowles said.

"Just about every product we're analyzing in the blade space is coming out on Linux first," he said.

Second wave
Sun has grander plans than the single-processor machines coming this year, though.

"In 2003, the company plans to release its dual-processor version, Fowles said."

But the second wave of blades will be more radical. Sun believes the systems no longer will have their own storage systems but rather will connect to storage over a network, connected with Ethernet or the nascent InfiniBand technology.

Second-wave systems also will come with more sophisticated networking switches that enable encrypted communications and other security features. Also coming will be four-processor systems and 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet connections, Fowles said.

For now, customers aren't ready for remote storage. "The jump to diskless blades is too much for some people," Fowles said.

IBM and InfiniBand chipmaker Mellanox share Sun's idea that future blades will be divided into constituent components, with separate modules for processing, storage and network communications. InfiniBand looks like the most promising fabric to connect all these components together, but it's not certain it will prevail, Fowles said.

"Odds are, at the moment, InfiniBand. If InfiniBand comes off, it would be a better option," he said. "But if 10-gigabit (Ethernet) can do the job..."

"Our biggest concern right now is there is no supply chain for InfiniBand," with comparatively few suppliers of the necessary technology, Fowles said.