RealTime IT News

Sun Turns to AMD in Effort to Recover from x86 Mistake

SAN FRANCISCO -- After a tumultuous year of building and tweaking its flagship operating system, Sun Microsystems is going after IT managers with new incentives on Solaris on non-SPARC servers.

During a briefing Monday, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based network computer maker said it would waive the $20 evaluation fee it has been charging on the server operating environment. The move comes after a string of maneuvers Sun has made after abandoning support for Solaris on x86-based machines.

"The server market place is a three-horse race between Windows, Linux and Solaris," Sun vice president of operating platforms John Loiacono said. "Our advantage is that we have more market opportunities and choices given the fact that we are the only vendor to offer Solaris and Linux on x86 systems."

Loiacono said Sun's strategy lies in 2- and 4-way systems. The company's current offerings include its SunFire V60x and V65x servers as well as its x86 blade servers .

The scene today is a 180-degree turnaround from nearly two years ago, when Sun "deferred productization" of the Solaris 9 Intel version in favor of one that runs on its own UltraSPARC chips. After some public outcry, Sun met with a group of customers and developers to work out a compromise. The debate came to a boiling point, when members of Solaris-x86.org fired off an open letter to Sun CEO Scott McNealy blasting him and the company for waffling on the decision to support x86 for newest version of Solaris.

The talks proved fruitful and in August 2003, Sun said it would support Solaris 9 on Sun x86 hardware for its LX50 server. In February, Sun released Solaris 9 x86 and reaffirmed its commitment from the management to work in partnership with the Solaris user community.

"We never should have abandoned x86. We should have gone forward," Loiacono said looking in hindsight. Over the past year or so, many Sun executives including CEO Scott McNealy have also admitted the same.

The biggest boost to Sun's plans for Solaris x86, however, seems to have been its partnership with AMD . Sun said it made the decision based on customer requests and is expecting to release its 64-bit version of Solaris for AMD chips in the first half of 2004.

Developer and Save-Solaris-x86 spokesperson John Groenveld is pleased with Sun's progress but says the company can do more.

"I remain disappointed by management's failure to take very simple steps to resolve our customer complaints," Groenveld told internetnews.com. "I fear that management's paralysis will lead to further problems for our community down the road. I'm very happy that Sun has embraced Solaris x86 and more recently Solaris Opteron. I think this will give Sun a competitive advantage over Dell, HPQ, and IBM."

The difference between Sun's relationship with its semiconductor manufacturers is that Sun purchases Intel's chips and then turns around and performs its own engineering for the hardware. Loiacono said Sun's partnership with AMD is a little bit "closer" noting that there is give and take between the two companies.

"There is a widespread belief that Sun is so dead-set against the Intel x86 architecture (based on years of lambasting its inadequacies), that the company could never really bring itself to really support any Sun-badged x86 products," American Technology Research analyst Mark Stahlman said in a note to the press. "We remember many false-starts by Sun with still-born x86 boxes, boards and add-ons. Nonetheless, we are convinced that the technical "elegance" brought by AMD to the x86 - particularly due to AMD's incorporation of the HyperTransport 'packetized bus' architecture - has won the support of Sun's internal engineering staff."

The partnership has set rival Intel down the road looking at its own Xeon and even Itanium lineup. The reason? Sun and some of its partners are standing by the 64-bit abilities of AMD's Opteron family.

For example, Berkeley-based Gracenote, which is best known for helping Napster weed out the endless variations of copyrighted songs back in 2001, said it recently changed over its servers from Ultra SPARC to SPARC x86. Gracenote is looking forward to the 64-bit version without a thought to try out Intel's Itanium family.

"We have about a dozen companies already buying into our solution even before the product even ships next month and I've got at least 12,000 bids in the queue once it does," Loiacono told internetnews.com.

According to analyst firm IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Server forecast, published in September 2003, the $4.6 billion annual server OS landscape has seen a surge in the number of 2-way systems and a marked decrease in the amount of 8-way and above servers. That number is expected to nearly double in the next four years.

Sun has responded by sending out its executive team others to evangelize Solaris as well as the Java Enterprise System.

"We go to the IT departments and they put up their hands and say - 'No we can't do this... Turn to Sun for all of our hardware, software and support? We want customizable systems that we crafted ourselves,'" Loiacono said. "Then we approach the CIO and tell him that switching to our solution can save $3 million per year... and then they buy into it."

The vendor support list is also growing with Sybase as the latest firm to port over its app server software to Solaris. The Dublin-based firm said its latest Adaptive Server Enterprise is ready to run on Solaris x86 and SPARC.

With nearly a year after the launch and a handful of examples under its belt, Sun said it will announce more ISV partners, channel partners, customers and more supported hardware in the next few months.