Sun Ready to Wage Blade Wars Against IBM, HP

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2006-06-14

Sun Ready to Wage Blade Wars Against IBM, HP

SAN FRANCISCO—Sun Microsystems first entered the blade server market back in spring 2004 with the launch of the SPARC-powered Sun Fire B1600 and the B100/200 lines. They had heat and I/O problems and werent exactly a roaring success, and they made little impact in a market since dominated by IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

Two years later, after completely skipping a whole generation of blade servers, Sun Systems Group guru John Fowler told a small group of journalists and analysts here on June 13 that the company is back in the race to build and sell blades as a major part of its server business. In fact, Fowler said blade servers—sold on a large scale—are indeed the future of the server business for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based infrastructure giant.

And Sun—for all the other hardware and software it produces—is nothing if not a server company.

Blades, which are self-contained servers that have some components removed for space, power and other considerations, are the fastest growing server category in the United States and Europe, according to industry analyst company IDC.

IDC reports that the worldwide blade market has been growing at a 7 percent to 8 percent per-quarter rate for the past two years but is expected to see a major increase due to more power-efficient processors coming into the market.

Fowler, whose new title is executive vice president of Suns Systems Group, last month took command of a new combined division at Sun, which used to be the SPARC and x64 product groups. At his first press meeting in his new position, Fowler said Sun is currently readying a new line of super blades and a new eight-processor server based on AMDs x64 Opteron chips.

Fowler said the new blade line has an internal code name of Andromeda ("Get the connection with Galaxy?" Fowler asked with a smile, referring to another Sun server product) and added that the new power blades would be ready for the market by September at the latest.

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

What will be different about these new blade servers? Basically, Sun is making blades more like rack-mounted servers, packing them with more RAS (random access storage) features and providing full I/O throughput—all while consuming less power.

"Our initial group of blades (the B1600s) were low-powered, had very expensive engineering and were extremely limited in what they could do," Fowler said. "Its like anything else—you go through a generation of a product, you see what others do, and you learn how to improve it.

"We were criticized for not doing a second-generation blade server, but we decided to let it go and work [far ahead] on the third generation, and get it right. Were making them so that everything is modular; only the chassis remains the same, and were designing those to be good for at least five to seven years going forward."

The Andromeda servers will be much different, 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 will be easier to service. They will also cost less in the long run, Fowler said.

"Weve 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."

For service, Fowler said Sun is considering a subscription model that uses a fixed-cost pricing scale to allow customers to receive upgrades on a regular basis.

Next Page: Sun needs blades to help its business plan.


Sun, which hasnt turned a profit in nearly five years, is in under the gun to get back into the black after making billions in the 1980s and 1990s on its network servers and high-end workstations. Like other high-end computer makers (SGI is a star example), it has been hard-pressed in this decade to deliver profits when other manufacturers can deliver adequate performance on much cheaper platforms.

New CEO Jonathan Schwartz, to whom Fowler reports directly, has identified the server, storage and open-source enterprise software businesses as the three main areas Sun needs to lead it back to profitability. Fowlers influence touches all three of those areas.

He has his work cut out for him. Hewlett-Packard is expected to introduce its next-generation modular blades on June 14. IBM may show some new blades this summer. Chip makers such as Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are putting more R&D into blade offerings. AMDs newest processors are much more power-efficient and require less cooling, and Intels newest dual-core Xeon "Woodcrest" processors, due out on June 26, fit this bill exactly.

Click here to read more about Intels low-power chips for blades.

Finally, businesses of all sizes—not just Fortune 200 companies—are getting more serious about consolidating their IT systems and revamping their data centers.

Nonetheless, the time may be just right for the Sun assault into the blade server business.

"Were designing these new blades for the data center, not just for the individual chassis," Fowler said. "By designing them with the data center in mind, we can help facilities planners with their long-term blueprints. IT managers can better amortize their systems with units that will last longer; with these plug-and-play servers, which have full I/O out of the box, you dont have to waste a lot of time configuring them.

"Have you ever configured an HP server? Thats a good experience … I recommend it! With our servers, theres no figuring out power supplies, no bus bars, no calculating anything. Ours works off the shelf. This is a Toyota that comes with one kind of engine. Thats it."

Combining two division had been plan all along

Fowler is often credited by some analysts with planning and executing Suns highly successful x64 SunFire server line.

Fowler said that combining the x64 and SPARC server groups had always been in the companys long-term plan. It was not a reorganization designed by Schwartz, even though it happened only 30 days after he took the CEO job. Fowler said that Sun always intended to put the x64 servers into an independent group to help boost sales, but that the long-term goal had always been to merge them with the SPARC servers.

Fowler said that the recent announcement by Sun that it will need to lay off 11 percent to 13 percent of its work force—4,000 to 5,000 people—by the end of the year "will not affect the product road map were on."

There had been talk about heavy layoffs in the SPARC systems group and that Sun might have to rely more heavily on its partner, Fujitsu Computer Systems, to handle future SPARC development.

There will be no change in any of the product development timetables, Fowler said.

Fowler also was asked about Suns new servers being prepared to run on AMD Rev F chips, the development of which has been rumored to be weeks behind schedule.

Will this affect Suns new Galaxy servers, due out this fall?

"Not at all," Fowler said. "Everything about our new servers is congruent; it really doesnt matter which chips are used. Everything is easily interchangeable."

Fowler ended the discussion with a prediction: "Blade servers will end up supplanting rack servers over time, just as rack-mounted servers replaced tower servers. The time factor? Dont know, but this will happen."

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on servers, switches and networking protocols for the enterprise and small businesses.

Rocket Fuel