Sun Microsystems Inc. officials are betting that the combination of Advanced Micro Devices Inc.s Opteron processor and Suns Solaris operating system will enable the company to gain traction in the highly competitive x86 server space. Sun, of Santa Clara, Calif., is in the early stages of its strategy—according to Gartner Inc., the company shipped 490 Sun Fire V20z two-way systems in the first quarter, and Sun said that shipments went up 115 percent in the next quarter—but officials are pleased with the results to date. John Fowler, executive vice president of Suns Network Systems Group, is charged with growing the Opteron business, and recently spoke with Senior Editor Jeffrey Burt about the challenge.
When Sun brought out the Opteron systems earlier this year, the company separated the x86 systems group from the SPARC team. How has that worked out so far?
What Jonathan [Schwartz, Sun president and chief operating officer] was after was figuring out a way to accelerate SPARC development. As you probably know, the SPARC microprocessor team and the systems teams were actually separate prior to the reorganization. What David Yen [executive vice president of the Scalable Systems Group] has done is combine and reorganize the teams so that the microprocessors are actually together with the systems upon which theyre based.
On the Opteron side, the idea was that as a separate business unit, I could actually pursue my own pricing, my own product roadmap, my own marketing programs … without having a complicated mixed message. … We really see the Opteron product line as being a high-growth opportunity, so lets create a group to go grow it.
When Sun first began rolling out the Opteron servers, some officials talked about internal resistance from those inside Sun who felt the company should stay with its SPARC/Solaris roots and keep away from x86. How has that played out over the past six months?
The main resistance is really around cost. Obviously you have to go—as we have been doing—and invest in Solaris and Solaris optimization for Opteron as well as having another family of systems. I think that was the main concern that people had.
The enthusiasm of course is going up as we go and win customers.
So the early resistance didnt have an impact on Suns Opteron development? Are you on target with your product roadmap?
Things are going well. As you know, weve filled out our product line with a four-way [server] and workstations, and were working hard at expanding the product line out to include eight-way servers, as well as blade servers and other products that we havent talked about yet. Were going like gangbusters to fill out the product line. One of the great things about shipping in volume is then you build a bigger and bigger ecosystem around Solaris and ISVs and others, so youre just going to see more and more announcements from us after that. The important thing was to get started, and then build out the product line. Now were getting there.
[Hewlett-Packard Co.] is rolling out a family of Opteron-based systems. IBM is offering Opteron in a system as well. Sun seems to be taking a different tack, though, working much more closely with AMD in growing the capabilities of Opteron to suit your needs. Can you talk about that?
Therere a couple of things going on there. First of all, we signed an agreement with AMD, a pretty broad-based agreement that isnt just a supplier agreement. What a lot of people dont realize is that we had been working on optimizing Java and Solaris for Opteron long before we had actually decided to build hardware products and systems products for that. In my old role as software [chief technology officer], I actually worked on the relationship with AMD as it related to Java and Solaris.
From a business standpoint, we have this great opportunity because everyone in the x86 world is going to be transitioning to 64-bit, and so its an inflection point by which we can take advantage of it by aggressively adopting Opteron—having a full product line—and then taking advantage of all the customers that want to go and upgrade from 32-bit Xeon. Its quite a different opportunity than it was afforded say a couple of years ago, which was only 32-bit Xeon.
In comparison to IBM and HP, we dont have really a Xeon installed base to go and protect or a big revenue stream there, so that we can go and price aggressively and upgrade customers from Xeon without confusing or mixed messages.