Sun Raises Unix Server Bar

Zeros in on IBM with UltraSPARC III-based Sun Fire 15K system.

Sun Microsystems Inc. last week took aim at rival IBM in the high-end Unix server market with the unveiling of its biggest, most powerful system to date, the 106-processor Sun Fire 15K.

In a subdued event in New York, Sun executives said the server, designed to handle massive numbers of transactions or computations simultaneously, will not only replace the companys popular top-end E1000 but could also replace smaller mainframe systems, thus posing a threat to IBM.

This week, IBM will launch its own assault on the high-end server market with a new 32-way system that will feature the companys newest microprocessor architecture, the Power4. Code-named Regatta, it will also feature several technological advances designed to boost server uptime by enabling the system to recognize and fix problems without human intervention.

During last weeks event, Sun CEO Scott McNealy and President and Chief Operating Officer Ed Zander said that with the Sun Fire 15K, the company is several years ahead of the competition, primarily IBM. "Were going to set whole new standards for price/performance," Zander said, stressing the servers compatibility with Suns product line.

The Sun Fire 15K, powered by the Palo Alto, Calif., companys newest processor, a 900MHz UltraSPARC III, is offered in several configurations. A 16-way will be priced at $1.4 million, while a 72-way targeted at businesses will sell for more than $4 million. The 106-CPU version designed for research facilities will cost about $10 million.

The Sun Fire 15K can be partitioned into as many as 18 virtually independent systems, which data centers could use to reduce reliance on multiple systems. Sun wants to expand the market for the Sun Fire 15K by getting data centers to buy a single, high-end server instead of multiple systems.

"What we see here with partitioning is that high-end Unix servers may not only exist with mainframes in data centers, but theres this notion that they can tackle the work running on those mainframes as well," said Jean Bozmanan, an analyst for International Data Corp., in Mountain View, Calif.

According to IDC, Sun last year was the top high-end Unix server vendor, based on revenue, with 47.1 percent of the market worldwide. IBM was second with 18.8 percent, and Hewlett-Packard Co., of Palo Alto, was third with 11.4 percent. But IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., was No. 1 in overall server revenue worldwide with 26 percent of the market.

The Sun Fire 15K takes over as the companys flagship system, succeeding the highly successful 64-way E1000, introduced four years ago. Despite the E1000s $1 million-plus price, Sun sold more than 5,000 of the servers, which are based on a design acquired from Cray Research Inc. in 1996. The Sun Fire 15K will deliver up to five times the performance of its predecessor, Sun executives said. The system includes the largest memory in a single system—576GB—4 petabytes of disk storage and three "switchboards" that provide dedicated high-speed data paths among vital system components.

The servers expanded capabilities make it well-suited for research, said Mike Vildibill, deputy director of resources for the San Diego Supercomputer Center, one of the first customers to use the Sun Fire 15K. It "offers the performance needed to support our data-intensive requirements, ranging from storage management, relational databases, data mining and data-intensive scientific applications such as those in bioinformatics," Vildibill said.