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Sun touts technical computing roots

The company starts promoting an effort to return to its high-performance computing roots, as it aims at the weakened SGI and the ascendant IBM.

Sun Microsystems this week started promoting an effort to return to its high-performance computing roots, as it aims at the weakened SGI and the ascendant IBM.

In a news conference, Sun introduced Shahin Khan in his new role as head of Sun's high-performance technical computing group. Khan enumerated Sun products appropriate to the market--everything from workstations to grid software to groups of massive multiprocessor Sun Fire 15K servers joined with the high-speed Sun Fire Link technology.

Khan reports to Clark Masters, executive vice president of the Enterprise System Products group, who opened the conference by listing the supercomputing credentials of Sun executives. Khan worked at Cray Research, the company with perhaps the best-recognized name in the technical computing arena, while Masters himself comes from Floating Point Systems and Cray. Others at Sun hail from now-extinct technical computer specialists MasPar, Thinking Machines, Kendall Square Research, Cydrome and Apollo.

But ever since Sun began selling the 64-processor E10000 server--a product designed by Cray--in the mid-1990s, the company's emphasis has shifted firmly to the business computing world, Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice said.

"How much time they spend talking about it being in their DNA is a perfect indication that most people don't remember it," Eunice said.

Sun's push is emblematic of the current development in high-performance computing, which is being led by major companies, rather than boutique specialists.

"The diversity in high-performance computing is decreasing enormously," Eunice said. "One reason is that standard products have gotten good enough for high-performance computing, and distributed computing mechanisms--clusters or grids (that link groups of computers)--have also gotten very good."

Part of Sun's effort is aimed at stealing customers away from SGI, which has been ailing financially for years despite specialized gear that excels at heavy-duty graphics tasks such as aerial combat simulators.

"People are looking for alternatives to SGI," Masters said. Sun's V880Z server, introduced in February, is aimed at that market.

But the bigger target is IBM, which increased its high-performance computing revenue 28 percent from 2001 to 2002 to $1.33 billion, according to IDC. That's second place only to Hewlett-Packard, which shrank 25 percent to $1.58 billion in the $4.7 billion total market.

Big Blue, like third-place Sun, has been elevating and consolidating its technical-computing push.

Unlike IBM, Sun doesn't plan a massive effort to build the largest systems, despite U.S. government interest triggered by the fact that NEC's Earth Simulator in Japan is now top of the supercomputing heap. "There's a big, reinvigorated push by the government in high-end computing," Masters said, "now that the largest supercomputer in the world is owned outside the U.S."

One driver for Sun's push is the fact that businesses are running mathematical models once reserved for scientists. The effort is aimed at tasks such as detailed analysis and optimization of business processes.

Khan will have direct responsibility for many hardware, software and marketing personnel, as well as ties to employees from other parts of the company.

Sun's high-performance computing plan won't change its overall emphasis on general business computing as the top priority, Khan said in an interview. "Business computing is likely to remain the much bigger part of IT spending for a long time," he said.