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Sun Ready for Blades War

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Only two companies stand in the way of Sun becoming a major player in server blades.

Unfortunately, those two companies are IBM and Hewlett-Packard, which dominate the market for server blades with a 40 and 36 percent market share, respectively, according to IDC.

But playing the role of upstart competitor is nothing new for Sun. The Santa Clara, Calif. company said it will enter the fast-growing category this summer with a new blade offering better designed for the needs of the data center.

"We're not wimps. This is going to be bold, audacious and different," said John Fowler, executive vice president of Sun's Systems Group, in a media briefing here. "The real blades war is about to start. I think it will be a real interesting next couple of years because the market's up for grabs."

Sun was actually among the early entrants in the blade market with its Sun Fire B1600 server. Fowler called it a first generation effort that Sun discontinued just as other blade players went back to the drawing board. "We didn't participate in the second generation, but we've learned a lot. Now we're looking at this third generation to get back in the competition."

Outlining some of the specifications, Fowler said Sun's offering would use AMD Opteron processors, Sun's own Sparc chips and possibly other processors. Sun will also adopt the PCI-SIG's PCIe ExpressModule standard which allows true hot-swapping of I/O components from multiple vendors.

"Not boxing customers into a single vendor is a big play," Vernon Turner, group vice president enterprise computing at IDC, told internetnews.com.

Bob Gill, chief research officer with TheInfoPro, agreed. "It's certainly one more reason for customers not to leave Sun," Gill told internetnews.com. "Standardized back planes are a great idea. It's not rated as highly by the customers I've talked to as I expected, but that may be because they've already invested in a proprietary solution."

While blades get a lot of play in the trade press, Fowler notes rack mount servers are still far more popular. Over time he thinks blade servers will supplant rack mount servers in the same way that racks succeeded towers. According to IDC, blades reached $1 billion in sales in four years versus the five years it took for rack mount servers to reach that mark. The research company is predicting thirty percent of all server shipments will be in the blade form factor by 2010.

"We think blades' appeal has been limited, but we can accelerate that with third generation products," Fowler said.

One of those limits, or complaints by blade customers, is that the blade cabinets often can't be fully populated because of heat, power and cooling issues. Fowler said Sun will emphasize a "No Compromises" tag line for its blades. "You can fully populate ours with memory, I/O, whatever you want, with no weird rules about having to keep anything open."

Turner said Sun has a chance to succeed to the extent it can show its blades are a better long term investment.

"If you think about how blades are mixed and matched today with x86, network and storage blades it's a real challenge for the data center facilities guy who's waiting for the whole thing to explode," said Turner. "That's why they've stuck with rack mount servers." Fowler said Sun's blade entrant, code-named Andromeda, has been designed more for the needs of the overall data center than the individual chassis. "This is not a small business product, it's focused on hundreds or even thousands of blades in the data center," said Fowler.

He said Sun will also offer precise power management and monitoring tools to measure use on a second-by-second basis and even see how much power particular applications require.

Later this year Fowler said Sun plans to start moving move its SunGrid systems over to the new blade system.