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Sun Fire Gets an UltraSPARC Refresh

SAN FRANCISCO -- Sun Microsystems is quickly revamping its Sun Fire server family with its latest UltraSPARC processors, the company said Friday.

The systems vendor said it is currently shipping two new 1.05/1.2 GHz UltraSPARC IV Sun Fire servers -- the v480 and the v880 -- to partners today. It expects to announce volume shipping of the two units to coincide with the company's quarterly hardware/software update (NC04 Q3) later this month. Specific attributes and final pricing were not disclosed, but Sun said that the baseline systems would sell for less than $50,000.

During a briefing with press and analysts, Andy Ingram, Sun vice president of marketing, said Sun has already benchmarked the systems and can lay claim to world record times with systems running Manugistics, SAP AG and the SPECompL2001.

The two revised units highlight Sun's efforts to keep its data- and network-intensive products up to snuff. Already this year, the company has equipped its Sun Fire E2900, E4900, E6900, E20K and E25K with the latest UltraSPARC IV chips. Each of the systems can scale from 12 to 72 processors with as many as 144 threads of throughput computing.

Sun said it feels like its succeeded in selling the upgrade from UltraSPARC III versions of the Sun Fire v880 and v480 -- two very popular sellers according to market research firm IDC's quarterly server tracker report for May 2004. The same report is giving a gold star to Sun, which is expected to reach unit shipments in excess of 307,000 for the current quarter. The company would not confirm the numbers citing SEC restrictions, but did say that IDC's numbers do include its UltraSPARC and Opteron servers.

"Sun's latest UltraSPARC IV servers demonstrate that there's lots of life left in Sun and in the descendents of the SPARC architecture and vision," Michael Dortch, a market analyst with IT research firm Robert Frances Group, told internetnews.com. "These servers, along with anticipated future UltraSPARC enhancements and performance increases, should give Intel and its partners much to consider.

However, Dortch noted that few IT executives keep their jobs for buying chips, no matter how powerful. They buy solutions, and Sun and its partners must work out pricing for those solutions that "look and feel" more preferential than predatory.

"It may be time to once again revisit the 'power unit' concept, or for companies such as Oracle to consider trading incremental per-core revenues for more happy enterprise customers," Dortch said.

Going forward, Ingram said that the first UltraSPARC IV power bump should come sometime in the next nine months and that systems based on its upcoming 90-nanometer (nm) UltraSPARC IV+ and UltraSPARC IIIi+ processors should debut some nine months after that.

"We are aggressively going after Wall Street with this upcoming batch of announcements," Ingram told internetnews.com

In comparison to other enterprise semiconductors, Sun is well ahead of the curve when it comes to multi-core products. IBM is also leading the category with its Power Processors, with AMD and Intel lagging behind with their Opteron and Xeon chips, respectively. As for Intel's Itanium, Ingram took a classic Sun swipe at the chip giant's week of chip talk.

"Even their partners are asking questions about the long-term viability of Itanium," Ingram said. "Besides, Intel doesn't own the operating system like we do."

Ingram also confirmed that Sun is preparing a version of Solaris that would run on IBM's Power processors, while the company's plans for the Solaris operating system on Itanium has been shelved for undisclosed reasons.

SPARC Road Map Approaches 90nm

The UltraSPARC IV announcement also tips Sun's hand when it comes to its roadmap for its signature processors.

The company reiterated its UltraSPARC IV+ processor will be two times faster than its current UltraSPARC IV.

The company is also preparing its co-development partnership with Tokyo-based Fujitsu. Starting in 2006, the two companies that supply SPARC-based servers are expected to begin rolling out their joint Advanced Product Line (APL), also known as Olympus. As previously reported, the three-year initiative wraps a 20-year partnership around next-generation, 64-bit RISC chips. The joint effort is expected to produce servers that scale from one to multiple processors.

APL is a server product line that combines mid- to high-end traditional SMP (Symmetric Multi-Processing) systems made by Tokyo-based Fujitsu with low- to mid-range servers from Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun. The Fujitsu APL systems will use its Olympus processor with its Jupiter system Interconnects. Sun is basing its APL systems on its Niagara processor, which is a glue-less Chip Multi Threaded system that has been pre-configured to address 14 separate case usage models, such as network-centric, data-centric, compute-centric and workstations. All APL-branded servers are expected to run Solaris 10. The only subtle differences expected are in hardware such as faceplates and colors to distinguish the systems.

However Ingram would only say that Niagara would be built on the popular manufacturing process of the day when it debuts. While Sun has put the 90nm process on its to-do list, the company might be inclined to use 65nm technology if it thought it could use it to an advantage.