RealTime IT News

A Home Run for Sun?

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - For Sun Microsystems , the unveiling of three major products here on Tuesday at the Palace Hotel was a huge relief. Sun's earlier first effort in the fast-growing blade  server market failed, and the company sat out the second phase of that market's growth while HP, IBM and others cleaned up.

It's also of particular relief to Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz, who is nearing the end of his first 100 days in the top spot. "This is a pretty important launch for me while I'm still in the honeymoon period," he joked.

But Sun's problems are no joke. The once high-flying computer maker has been struggling to get back on the growth track it rode before the dotcom bust, when its Sparc-based Web servers ruled. In recent years, Sun has embraced AMD's 64-bit Opteron processor, a bet that was starting to pay dividends even before today's news of more Opteron-based systems.

"Dell's been eating Sun's lunch with x86 servers, but these new systems show you can be x86 and bring a differentiated value," Nathan Brookwood, analyst with Insight64, told internetnews.com. "This also shows Sun hasn't been needlessly burning through its R&D budget." Sun spends nearly $2 billion a year on R&D.

One example of that payoff is the Sun Fire X4600, a 16-way, x64 server in a single 4u chassis. (Even though its based on the x86 Opteron, Sun likes to use the x64 designation for 64-bit as it plans to offer similar systems based on its own Sparc processor next year).

Ditto the Sun Fire X4500, which Sun is calling the world's first hybrid data server. The system combines a four-way Opteron server with up to 24 terabytes &NBSPof storage, a density it said no other server maker offers. Throughput of up to 2 gigabytes per second is also at the leading edge of performance.

"Storage has been incredibly siloed since the rise of the standalone storage products," Gordon Haff, analyst with Illuminata, told internetnews.com. "It's a very intriguing product. What customers buy is applications and Sun needs to partner with some folks to show what this system can do."

Sun's chief architect, Andy Bechtolsheim said the Tokyo Institute of Technology is already using fifty of the X4500s to, among other things, work with large media files in parallel. "This is the kind of system you need to collect every click on the Internet," said Bechtolsheim.

Tim O'Reilly, the CEO of O'Reilly Media, was impressed enough with the X4500 to say, "This is the Web 2.0 server." O'Reilly's company coined the term "Web 2.0" .

With the Sun Blade 8000, Sun is putting its own stamp in the blade space at the high end, aimed squarely at the data center. In addition to claiming twice the I/O and longevity of the competition, Sun said the Blade 8000 has up to 40 percent lower power requirements.

It's also the first to offer hot-pluggable blade I/O adapters based on the PCI Sig Express/Module industry standard, which several vendors (Emulex, LSI Logic, Mellanox and QLogic) have released products for or plan to.

"This is a very important release for data center customers," said IDC analyst John Humphreys. "Sun has a great virtualization story to tell, that I think they should emphasize more." Virtualization leader VMWare, announced support for the new Sun systems.

IDC analyst Jean Bozman credits Sun for taking advantage of industry standards and products while also building on its years of expertise. "They are leveraging a lot of the stuff they developed on the RISC platform, like the lights out management and network centricity, and bringing it to the x64."

Sun claimed several world record benchmark specs for the new systems and is bringing several technological innovations to market. Now the question is how many companies are ready to buy?

"Bechtolsheim and his team have shown engineering talent that's not to be underestimated," said Brookwood. "He's demonstrated the kind of vision you don't see at other companies."