Sun Ready to Wage Blade Wars Against IBM, HP

The company says blades are the future of its server business.

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.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick 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.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...