Sun, Fujitsu Update SPARC Server Line

Sun Microsystems and Fujitsu are updating their jointly developed line of servers with the SPARC64 VII, a new version of the SPARC processor that offers four processing cores, a larger L2 cache and a total of eight instructional threads, and looks to compete against IBM's Power processors and Intel's Itanium chip.

Sun Microsystems and Fujitsu are updating their jointly developed line of midrange and high-end servers with a quad-core version of the SPARC64 microprocessors.

The two companies will launch four new systems Jul. 14 that are built on the SPARC64 VII processors, which have four processing cores, better clock speed-2.4GHz or 2.5GHz-and 6MB of Level 2 cache. The updated SPARC chip also has a total of eight instructional threads, two with each core, which allow multiple threads to work at the same time in parallel to support database applications.

It's the first significant update to the SPARC line since 2007, when Sun and Fujitsu announced systems built around the previous generation of SPARC64 chips. However, the SPARC64 VI and VII use the same sockets on the board, which allows uses to mix and match chips with a single system or within a larger chassis.

The new SPARC64 VII is also built on a new 65-nanometer manufacturing process, whereas the older generation of chips were built on 90-nm, said Richard McCormack, senior vice president of marketing for Fujitsu. This should also provide a performance boost for the new systems and also improve energy efficiency, since the dual-core SPARC chips ran at 120 watts, while the quad-core version runs at 135 watts.

"What this all means is that we now have a brand-new processor core that really helps the midrange and high-end customers choose if they want to expand their machines by going to a larger chassis or simply make a CPU swap in their current chassis to drive up the performance in the machine," McCormack said.

The updated SPARC64 VII should not be confused with Sun's other line of processors under the title of UltraSPARC T1 and T2-formally both Niagara-which the company has been rolling out with some success since their first introduction in 2005.

While Sun has tried to position the UltraSPARC family as more of a commodity processor that can handle general-purpose or Web 2.0 applications and Web infrastructure, the older SPARC lines remains wedded to traditional back-end support and high-performance computing applications.

The new SPARC systems also come at a time when Sun's high-end Unix business has been struggling to gain against IBM with its Power-based systems and Hewlett-Packard, which uses Intel's Itanium chip. Although this market was worth about $4 billion in the first quarter of 2008, Sun seems to have lost some ground to IBM.

While Sun has found a partner in Fujitsu to help offset the cost of developing high-end SPARC chips for this market, the industry is increasingly turning to x86-based hardware, which has also reduced sales.

To offset some the losses to its high-end server business, Sun has started cutting employees and the recent downturn in the company's stock has some people thinking that that Sun could be bought. The Register believes that buyer could eventually be Fujitsu, which makes sense since both companies already share a good deal of chip and system development.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said the line of SPARC-based systems will help with Sun's traditional customer base. The question that now has to be answered is whether the company's new hardware will translate into the new customers it needs to help increase its business when sales are sagging.

"With the older SPARC systems, the IT staff really understand the platform and when you have enterprise-class platform[s] like SPARC or IBM Power systems, it's always good to have a staff that knows the ins and outs and management features, and it makes sense for these companies to keep buying and replacing older systems," King said.

Despite the recent downturn, Sun and Fujitsu will revamp several of their systems to support the quad-core UltraSPARC64 VII. The updates to the SPARC line include two midrange, rack-mount systems, the M4000 and the M5000, which can support up to four and eight dual- or quad-core processors respectively.

On the high-end side of the SPARC line, Sun and Fujitsu have revamped the M8000 server to support 16 SPARC processors and the M9000 system to support up to 32 SPARC chips. All four systems support the latest versions of Sun's Solaris operating system and work with a number of SAN (storage area network) and NAS (network-attached storage) storage arrays.

The announcement of the new servers also means that several systems with Sun's Sun Fire line will reach end of life and no longer be sold. These systems include the Sun Fire V125, V215, V245 and V445.

The starting price for the new M4000 with the quad-core SPARC64 VII processor begins at about $34,980 and the prices for the other three systems increase from there.