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VA Linux wants to challenge Sun for high-end systems

VA Linux Systems is set to introduce a new low-end server, but it has longer-term ambitions to steal market share for more expensive systems away from Sun Microsystems.

VA Linux Systems has introduced a new low-end server, but it has its sights set much higher.

The company today will introduce model 2130, a single-processor, 3.5-inch thick rack-mounted machine with starting prices less than $1,400, said Brian Biles, vice president of marketing at VA. In the longer term, VA has ambitions to steal market share for more expensive systems away from Sun Microsystems.

"I don't think (Sun) can sell effectively anymore" to companies setting up large numbers of computers for high-traffic Web sites, said Biles, who in his last job plugged Sun network software. "They're turning into a mainframe company."

Sun indeed said in April that it's feeling the effects of Linux competitors in its low-end computer business. However, with $4 billion in revenue for the last quarter and a dominant position in the Unix server business, Sun can afford to be complacent. VA had revenues of $20 million in its most recent quarter.

Linux currently is limited mostly to low-end servers with one or two processors and computing jobs much less strenuous than what Unix servers with dozens of processors can handle. However, the new 2.4 version of the Linux kernel shows dramatic improvement, Linux founder Linus Torvalds has said.

And Linux is spreading fast. In February, International Data Corp. reported that Linux had grown to seize a quarter of the market for server operating systems in 1999--something the market analysis firm didn't expect to happen until 2002 at the earliest.

Biles pointed to two factors keeping Linux from pushing into more expensive systems. One is the lack of a "journaling file system," which lets Unix systems recover from a crash much faster. The other is the lack of a comparatively inexpensive 64-bit chip.

Though Linux runs on 64-bit chips from Mips, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Sun, cheaper 32-bit Intel chips are the Linux stronghold. VA and Intel both believe the upcoming 64-bit Itanium chip will push Linux to greater heights.

The rise of the Internet is the major reason behind the success of Linux, a clone of Unix. Linux is developed cooperatively by programmers across the Internet who often have never met, and its low cost means it's popular for delivering Web pages to browsers.

Typical configurations of VA's new server will cost about $1,500 to $1,700, Biles said. "The likely application for this one is probably going to be Web serving," he said.

The machine joins three more expensive rack-mounted machines from VA: the two-processor, 3.5-inch thick 2200; the two-processor, 1.75-inch thick 1000; and the four-processor, 12.25-inch thick 3500. All the systems come with a version of Linux from SuSE, Debian or Red Hat, though Red Hat is the default version. CNET's Linux Center

Dell, one of VA's biggest competitors, also is interested in Linux servers. It offers a choice of Linux or Windows 2000 on its DellHost site, a bank of computers where people rent space to put up Web pages.

Of the 2,000 customers who have signed on so far, half have requested Linux, said Tim Mattox, general manager of Dell's hosting group. It's the default option, and it costs $50 less per month than renting a Windows 2000 computer, he said.