Sun Looks to Strengthen
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As 2007 winds down, Sun Microsystems is no longer in the flux it was just a year ago. Since the summer, the Santa Clara, Calif., company has produced a string of significant hardware announcements, including its first systems built using Intels quad-core Xeon processors and new servers and blades built around its UltraSPARC T2 or Niagara 2 processor. In addition, Sun recently inked a new OEM agreement with Microsoft and reorganized its servers and storage businesses into one division. eWEEK Staff Writer Scott Ferguson spoke with John Fowler, a Sun executive vice president who will lead the new division, about what the company has in store and how its recent move will affect its core businesses.
How does Niagara 2 fit into Suns overall portfolio and what improvements does it offer to the companys servers and blade systems?
What Niagara 2 does is offer a very dramatic improvement in performance over Niagara 1. Across a wide range of applications, it is at least 2X [more powerful] and there are applications where it is six or eight times as fast as the Niagara 1. It dramatically increases the range of applications people can use with it. Fundamentally, people will use it for business [types] of applications, in the Web tier and database applications. The people who will be interested in it are going to be people who are interested in efficiency—that is, how much work can they get done within a given unit of power because on power performance basis these systems will be by far the most capable systems in the industry, and that is because of the design of the systems themselves. So that is going to be one area of interest, specifically customers that are concerned about what their power bill looks like for a given set of applications.
The second class of people that will be interested in it are people implementing virtualization because we include virtualization at the system level at no extra change, and then we have virtualization built into Solaris [operating system] at no extra change. The people buying these systems do not have to get involved in third-party products or other things in order to implement a virtualized environment.
So those are the two things that are going to attract people to us—power efficiency and virtualization.
Where will these Niagara-based system compete and will they compete with x86-based system or with high-end hardware like IBMs servers that use the Power processor?
It really comes into the volume side of the portfolio.
So there are people that are going to be buying systems that are $10,000 and up and that is in the enterprise class area in the volume. The most obvious direct competition is the Intel and AMD [Advanced Micro Devices] platforms and against those there will be basic measures of performance benchmarks and efficiency benchmarks where these [Suns systems] are just better across a range of workloads like Web applications processing, database and so on. Those would be the more classic thing that people would look to compare platforms, you know AMD and Intel, and customers would choose those instead of instead of big [IBM] Power 5 and Power 6 systems.
People have a wide range of applications, like big-scale business applications and Internet infrastructure, and they have technical computing needs, so what we are doing in our product line is making sure that we have leading-edge products across a range of price points and technical capabilities throughout the whole spectrum. This is part of a portfolio play and the systems fit into the volume category, but it is very complementary to what we are doing at the high-end and other parts of the portfolio.
Click here to read more about Suns new virtualization platform.
Sun recently announced that it would combine its server and storage division into one business. Can you take us through the companys thinking on that decision?
The way people look at their infrastructure varies, but fundamentally people look at the computing infrastructure today as the servers themselves, the networking elements that interconnect the servers with each other, as well as the storage products. So the concept behind putting this all in one group is to have a single, cohesive engineering team. Part of that is driven by some of the technology changes that are happening in the background and on how you actually interconnect storage and server and other stuff.
One of things that is important to note is that even though we are engineering out of one group, we are continuing to sell things in several different ways because there are many core customers, for example, that purchase storage through a separate department in their organization, and there are many other companies that dont do it that way. They purchase infrastructure as a single solution, so obviously well be able to cater to those areas both strategically and technically.
In terms of strategy, [CEO Jonathan Schwartz] is a big believer in gestating products and technology because often times there is a separate group and then the company combines them later. If you look at Suns history, we did Java as a separate group and then combined it with software. The x64 [x86, 64-bit] systems were a separate group and then we combined that together in a single organization.
When we acquired StorageTek, we kept StorageTek and the storage organization separate organizations and then ultimately combined it later. So, its a natural life cycle of the fact that you can get some great opportunities to innovate by being separate and then you also get some great opportunities to innovate by being together and this is just part of that natural life cycle.
In terms of technology, there are a number of trends where software and hardware technologies are combining a lot more disks on servers. We have our own examples of that on Thumper and what we announced with the [Intel-based Sun Fire x4150] and the other related Intel products, which have a lot more incorporated on them and a lot more disk capabilities. Is it a server system or a storage system? It is kind of ambiguous.
In the networking arena, between Fibre Channel switching, SAS, 10 Gigabit Ethernet and InfiniBand, there are a lot of activities going on between how people connect storage and servers, so one of things thats exciting about putting it all in a group is that all the people that are working on incorporating disks into servers, as well as people working on the switching between storage and server, as well as all the people working on high-end storage systems, are all now in one group.
Will Suns channel strategy change after the server and storage division are combined?
On the sales side, we are not going to be making any changes.
We have a set of direct practice specialists that have experience with storage and they will remain the same under the same people. We also have people who specialize in the channel and that will remain the same.
Fundamentally, what we have are channel partners that are selling both storage and systems products already and this is no difference [for] them. Then there are channel partners who are only selling storage products, and we absolutely will continue to cater to those channel partners because they are a core part of our business.
One of the questions I get is if Sun is only going to focus its selling storage on its own systems and that is absolutely not the case. A significant percentage of our revenue is selling archived and storage on other systems, including on IBM mainframes, and that is an essential part of the storage business model.
How is the new agreement with Microsoft going to change Suns approach to the market and its customers?
If you looked at Suns system business about three to four years ago, it was pretty easy to describe. It was Solaris running on SPARC and Solaris itself was not an open-source operating system, so it was kind of the classical way you did systems.
A few years ago, we did a pretty big sea change and that sea change goes in three parts, which are very important to understand. The first was to take Solaris off of SPARC and then open it up by putting it on an x64 platform, so that people could pick Solaris without picking [Sun] hardware. Then we open-sourced it, so people would build a community around Solaris, whether it is developers or other businesses, and thats a very big part of opening up Sun.
The second part of the change, and Niagara 2 was part of this, is that we took our own designs and moved much more aggressively than anyone else around the multicore, multithread and virtualization technology, and that has sparked a resurgence and interest in our own hardware. We also open-sourced the Niagara processor, so we are extending it to hardware as well.
The third part of the change is that we started out by embracing AMD and, more recently, by entering into a business and technology agreement with Intel as we embraced x64. What that does for us is that it allows us to go to customers and say if you want to run Windows or if you want to run Linux, Sun can still be your provider and thats a much more diverse view than what we had in the past, which was sort of its just our technology and no one elses.
The Windows OEM agreement is fundamentally about adding to the appeal that Sun has across different segments and getting rid of the religion and being more practical to the customers needs and hopefully building on six consecutive quarters of growth.
Click here to read more about Sun merging servers and storage into one group.
Where is the Microsoft and Sun agreement now?
The x64 platform has been certified for Windows since the very beginning so we are part of [the Windows certification process] and we actually have a lot of people that run Windows. They may have their own site licenses, for example, or they may have it through a channel partner, so what the Windows OEM agreement changes is the business engagement and the technology engagement between Microsoft and Sun. That means that we will go directly to customers and say if you want to run Windows on a Sun platform, we help you go run that, and we will work together on business engagements.
What has been the response to the agreement with Intel and do Sun customers have a preference between AMD and Intel?
The agreement with Intel is in two general areas. The first is Intel working on Solaris and enhancing Solaris and endorsing Solaris, and the first customer reactions were that they were very excited about this. The fact that Intel is on board with Solaris is a big deal, so we get a lot of feedback on how that was a missing piece of the puzzle. [Customers] could run Solaris on whatever platform that they wanted, but if [they] wanted an Intel endorsement or [its] technical help, it was kind of the missing thing.
In terms of the hardware platform themselves, Sun customers have a bias one way or the other based on their applications or prior experience. They want one or another and it helps having both to help take that issue off the table. If you go to [customers] and, for whatever reason, they like AMD or they like Intel, we are not locked out. The other thing that customers like is that they have a choice. That is if one microprocessor supplier gets ahead or behind or one has better pricing, choosing Sun does not preclude them from taking advantage of that technology.
Obviously, we just announced the [Intel] rack-mounted servers and I cant point and say, Wow we have sold a huge quantity of systems because they are just out in the market, but the reaction from customers has been really positive.
What is the future of Suns blade business and what is the companys approach?
We just introduced a number of new products, so its a little early to say for sure, but it is going well and … we have something for everyone.
In terms of what is going to happen over time, thats a little harder to say.
One of the things that we have done thats a little different than the competition is that we continue to invest heavily in rack-mount computing, which is the bulk of the marketplace. Its less clear what Hewlett-Packard and IBM are willing to do. We also unified the systems management and the architecture between our blades and our racks, so that we force you to make a choice there. If you want a mix in your environment, with some of our blades and some of our racks but want to manage them all as one, cohesive whole, we allow you to do that.
What happens next?
So if you look at the last two years, we did major upgrades to the UltraSPARC line, and we introduced the complete APL [Advanced Products Line], … Niagara and now Niagara 2. Then we also introduced the Intel and AMD products, so we are cooking on all cylinders on the product front, and you are going to see that continue. There will be a steady drumbeat of product announcements over the next year or two.
The other side is that we are looking to broaden our appeal and the Microsoft OEM agreement does that. We are able to cover a broader range of segments and this is increasing the interest of channel partners, system integrators and others. It also allows them to look at Sun in a different way. You are going to see us announce relationships with system integrators and other people who are predominately geared toward Windows and those technologies.
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