Sun Puts Opteron into Blades

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2006-07-11

Sun Puts Opteron into Blades

Sun Microsystems is coming out with the latest of its Opteron-based Galaxy servers, including its first system that will give the hardware maker a presence in the fastest growing and highly competitive blade space.

At an event in San Francisco July 11, Sun officials—including CEO Jonathan Schwartz, Executive Vice President of Systems John Fowler and Andy Bechtolsheim, systems designer and the architect of the new servers—will introduce not only the new Sun Blade 8000, but also another server that can scale to 16 processors and a system code-named Thumper that combines both server and storage capabilities in a single box.

Also on hand with be Hector Ruiz, CEO of Opteron maker Advanced Micro Devices, as well as a number of customers.

The systems will add to the one- to four-socket systems the Santa Clara, Calif., company already has in its Opteron-based suite, a key part of Suns makeover as it attempts to return to profitability after several years of operating losses.

Sun officials point to continued gains in sales and revenues in its x86 business, and that the new servers represent a marked improvement over similar servers from competitors.

"These are all completely unique in their architecture and in their performance," Bechtolsheim said during a press preview June 29. "They represent an entirely new chapter in the history of Sun Microsystems."

The new servers represent an aggressive push by Sun to gain a foothold in spaces either dominated by or abandoned by rivals Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

The blade space is among the fastest growing server markets, with research firm IDC, of Framingham, Mass., predicting it to grow to $15 billion by 2009. In the first quarter of 2006, blade revenue grew 43.4 percent and shipments rose 29.5 percent, IDC said. IBM topped the market with 40.1 percent share, followed by HP at 35.6 percent and Dell at 11.1 percent.

Sun originally entered the blade market in 2004 with the SPARC-powered Sun Fire B1600 and B100/200 lines. However, heat and I/O issues hampered sales, and they made little impact on the market. Sun abandoned the blade market in 2005 and opted to skip participation in the second generation of blade servers that came out later that year from HP, IBM and others, said David Lawler, director of product definition and strategy at Suns Systems Group. The 8000 represents Suns return to the blade market, and all three new servers "show Sun innovation coming into the products," he said.

Click here to read eWEEK Labs review of Suns Sun Fire X4100, the first release in its Galaxy server line.

Sun also is coming out with both Opteron- and SPARC-based blades for the telecommunications industry.

The servers, internally code-named Andromeda, are different from previous Sun Fire versions in that they will have easily upgradable CPUs, much higher I/O capability—"six to 10 times the throughput of most current blades," Fowler said—and be easier to service. They will also cost less in the long run, he said.

"We have separated the I/O from the blade CPU," Fowler said. "Thats one of the big differences in our design. Once you put it in, you can replace anything inside it without taking the chassis out. These are built for clustering."

The chassis holds as many as 10 four-socket blade servers and houses the I/O, cooling and power features for the systems. It offers twice the I/O capabilities of blades from HP and Dell, Lawler said. Bechtolsheim estimated power and cooling cost savings of up to 62 percent, compared with other blade and rack-mount servers.

The Sun Fire X4600 can scale from four to 16 processors, representing Suns entrance into a part of the industry—the x86 eight-way space—largely abandoned by its rivals. Dell servers scale to four sockets, while HPs x86 ProLiants also scale up to four sockets, with anything larger coming from its Itanium 2-based Integrity line. Lawler said previous eight-way systems were primarily 32-bit servers that lacked the memory footprint for such scale-up environments. However, with Opterons dual-core capabilities—moving to quad-core next year—and 64-bit computing features, those concerns are gone, he said.

Next Page: X4600 powers supercomputer.

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It was the X4600 that the Tokyo Institute of Technology used to build TSUBAME, the supercomputer that ranks as the seventh most powerful computer in the world. The supercomputer—a cluster of systems connected via InfiniBand—uses 10,480 Opteron chips and has a sustained peak of 38.18 teraflops, or trillion floating point operations per second.

"[Sun] competitors did not have x86-based fat nodes, i.e., those with a large number of CPUs and large memory," said Satoshi Matsuoka, the professor responsible for the computing infrastructures at the schools Global Scientific Information and Computing Center. "This is necessary because good, general-purpose supercomputers are typically built out of such fat nodes, giving various benefits both from user and system administrative perspectives, such as various algorithmic advantages by having large shared memory, support of both shared memory and message passing programming models, lower node count for reliability and manageability, etc.

"HP eight-socket nodes were not dense enough and used too much power; IBM never offers x86 eight-way nodes that are supercomputing-capable. This also goes for other Japanese vendors such as Hitachi, Fujitsu, etc."

The two dual-core Opteron-based Sun Fire X4500 archival storage server can hold up to 24 terabytes of data within its 48 hot-swappable disk drives. It has recorded very high throughput numbers in testing: 1G bps from disk to network and 2G bps from disk to memory, Bechtolsheim said.

Lawler said the system will be particularly useful with such workloads as data analysis and data warehousing, video surveillance and streaming, and high-performance computing environments.

All three systems—available immediately—were built with virtualization in mind, and to help with the heating and cooling issues that are becoming key concerns in modern data centers. The servers use an unusual new flow-throw system, in which air is forced directly through the disk drives and processors via narrow channels.

The announcements come at a time of change for Sun, which saw Scott McNealy in April step down after 22 years as CEO, giving way to Schwartz. The company also is undergoing a restructuring that includes combining its two server businesses—its new Opteron systems and traditional SPARC-based servers—into one unit. In addition, Sun is looking to lay off up to 5,000 people.

Click here to read more about the Sun layoffs.

But the changes will have no impact on Suns overall product plans or road maps, Fowler said. The company is still on track not only with its Opteron servers but also its SPARC-based Niagara and Rock systems and its Advanced Product Line, being developed jointly with Fujitsu.

Sun officials say they are seeing increased demand for the companys Galaxy systems. In the first quarter of 2006, Sun said revenues for its x86 systems was about $120,000, twice that of the same period a year ago. Sun and IBM were the only vendors to better the market in lower-end, x86 server sales in the first quarter, IDC reported. However, Sun x86 server market share still ranks at around 2 percent, according to research firm Gartner, in Stamford, Conn.

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