Will Sun’s x86 Gamble Payoff?

For the longest time, Sun Microsystems touted itself as a supporter of open standards, but kept its Solaris operating environment as a close-knit community built around its SPARC processors.

The company has since shifted its software support strategy, one that may put its own semiconductors out of commission.

Last year Sun made the choice to completely support non-SPARC processor architectures – most notably x86 . Intel and AMD produce the majority of the 32-bit chips. Since then, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun has been on a tear, releasing Solaris 9 for x86 in February as well as massive changes announced this week.

A clearer picture of how well x86 has fit into Sun’s culture could come as early as next week when the company reports its quarterly earnings on April 16.

On Tuesday, Sun said Brooks Automation, Check Point, MatrixOne, RSA Security, and SunGard joined the growing list of Sun iForce partners such as Sybase that support Solaris-based x86 platforms.

In addition to Solaris support, Sun Tuesday released a pre-tested software version of its Project Orion system distributed on Solaris, Solaris for x86 and Linux. The company also unveiled its Trusted Solaris 8 HW 12/02, available on both SPARC and x86 systems.

“We’re very serious about Solaris on the x86 platform. This is yet another show of commitment from us,” Sun vice president Anil Gadre told internetnews.com.

But opening up Solaris to other architectures also comes with some risks. The company is reportedly looking at using AMD’s upcoming Opterons in some of its blade servers .

The option would pit AMD’s 64-bit up against Sun’s UltraSPARC processors, making them vulnerable to losses in sales and benchmarking criticisms.

Still, Sun seems confident it can pull it off. Company vice president John Loiacono was very forthcoming about the news.

“Can we commit to using Opteron today? No. Can we use it? Are we likely to use it? Yes, he said.

Intel, meantime, has little chance of getting its Itanium 2 chips embedded with Solaris.

At one time, Sun did do a port with Intel’s Itanium processors. However, Sun chairman and CEO Scott McNealy, who often refers to the IA processors as “Itanic” said there was “just no there, there,” when it came to the chips. McNealy said there was just too much engineering that Sun would have to do to make Solaris run well on Itanium 2 chips.

Sun CTO Greg Papadopoulos told internetnews.com the problem comes down to the compatibility of the chip architectures. SPARC chips are reduced instruction set computer — or RISC-based . Itanium is structured as a CISC — or complex instruction set computers.

“We’re not standing still with the chip multithreading,” Papadopoulos said.

The company said it continues to stand behind its new 1.2 GHz UltraSPARC III Cu processor. Code-named Jalapeno, the chips will make their debut in Sun’s latest Sun Fire servers and are expected to ship on April 30, 2003.

Papadopoulos said the technology was available right now, but in accordance with Sun’s new quarterly distribution, the company decided to hold back on the release.

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