Suns Galaxy Systems Shoot for x86 Space

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2005-09-12

Suns Galaxy Systems Shoot for x86 Space

NEW YORK—Sun Microsystems on Monday continued its push to remake itself into a technology company that embraces industry standards, open source and a wide variety of partners.

Sun Microsystems Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., a company that grew rapidly during the Internet boom and faltered just as quickly during the bust, is moving away from its roots as a company that stubbornly held onto its own SPARC/Solaris platform while the rest of the industry shifted toward x86 architecture and Linux.

As expected, Sun officials made a large step in that direction during an event here when it introduced the first systems in its "Galaxy" family of systems, powered by Advanced Micro Devices Inc.s dual-core Opteron processors.

Read more here about the debut of Suns new "Galaxy" servers.

Jonathan Schwartz, Suns president and chief operating officer, said during his presentation that what Sun wants to do now is give enterprises a wide range of choice—in server architecture and in operating systems—in hopes of winning back customers it may have lost and stealing business away from such competitors as Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM.

"Today is the culmination of a tremendous amount of [research and development]," Schwartz said. For the past few years, Sun has been "trying to fundamentally understand where we went wrong as a company, where we went off the rails, [and] how we can get back on the rails."

At one point, Schwartz also shared the stage with representatives from several companies—such as Linux vendor Red Hat Inc.—that only a couple of years ago would never have been invited into the room.

The new systems answer customer demands for an industry-standard platform that offers high performance at reasonable prices and addresses growing concerns about power consumption, heat generation and the data center space, Schwarz said.

Sun next month will start shipping the 1U (1.75-inch) Sun Fire X4100 and 2U (3.5-inch) X4200, which officials are touting as the first enterprise-level x86 systems, complete with such features as hot-swap redundant power supplies and fans, RAID on the motherboard and remote systems management capabilities. Both systems run dual-core Opteron chips.

"Enterprise means you want to keep running while changing components," said Andy Bechtolsheim, chief architect and senior vice president of Suns NSG (Network Systems Group.)

Click here for an eWEEK Labs review of Suns "Galaxy" servers.

Sun also introduced the X2100, a low-cost dual-core Opteron system that, at a $745 starting point, is aimed at the price/performance space. Schwartz said Sun will expand the family with other systems, include blades and an eight-socket server, as the fiscal year unfolds.

At the event, Sun also announced other products and programs, such as Sun Grid Rack Systems, which helps businesses speed up the deployment of Sun Opteron systems by having the vendor integrate everything—from putting the servers in the racks to loading the operating system and Sun N1 System Manager software—before shipping it to the customer.

However, it was the servers themselves that garnered the most attention. In 2003, Sun announced it was going to offer Opteron-based servers, and the following year rolled out the two-way X20z and four-way X40z, which were made by third parties. Sun also dumped the few servers running on Intel Corp. chips it had been selling.

Next Page: The right stuff for the x86 space.

The Right Stuff for

x86 Space">

With those first AMD servers, Sun was able to push its way into the No. 6 spot among x86 systems vendors. John Fowler, NSG executive vice president, said the new systems will enable Sun to move up into the fourth spot in the competitive $25 billion market.

Backed up by a series of slides, Fowler said the new Galaxy systems offer more than 95 percent or one and a half times the performance of similar systems from Dell, HP and IBM, while consuming half the power and a quarter of the data center space, all key issues for enterprises.

Bechtolsheim, in an interview with reporters after the event, said Sun engineers were able to improve the airflow in the systems by using the smaller 2.5-inch disk drives and low-profile PCI slots, which enabled them to offer better cooling capabilities even though the systems are using faster and more power-hungry Opteron chips than other vendors.

AMD officials have said the company will make these chips generally available to the market later this quarter.

Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., said Sun is making the right moves to make its way into the x86 space, even after being so late to make the decision. How that translates into helping the companys bottom line remains to be seen.

"Certainly theyre going to be the No. 4 x86 server provider for a long time, but frankly, there are a lot of other companies in the x86 space, like Fujitsu, who have good technology that Sun is going to jump over," Haff said. "Theyve made pretty good progress, but how that will translate into financial results is a complicated issue."

Schwartz said that before embracing AMD, Sun already was losing business to the x86 vendors. Now the company—with its Opteron servers that run not only Solaris but also Linux and Microsoft Corp.s Windows operating systems—has a chance not only to keep that business, but also to make a run at competitors customers.

In a marked turnaround for the company from a few years ago, Schwartz said Sun is no longer worried about what businesses are asking for. Instead, he wants to be able to supply the products to meet their demands. "I just want the shelf space," he said.

EDS (Electronic Data Systems Corp.), which beta tested the new Opteron systems, is looking at the Galaxy systems to power its Virtual Server Services, a virtualized computing offering.

Larry Lozon, vice president of hosting systems at Plano, Texas-based EDS, said that operating system flexibility is just as important to him as the performance and cooling capabilities of the new systems.

"The ability for the platform to support multiple OSes is really a key play for a hosting service like this," Lozon said.

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