Sun to Detail Next Opteron Servers

Sun is about to step out with new Opteron servers, which pack more features.

Sun Microsystems server line will enter a new galaxy next week.

The San Jose, Calif.-based hardware maker is expected to unveil a new generation of AMD Opteron-based servers, known by the code-name Galaxy, at an event in New York City. There, Sun Microsystems Inc.s executives are expected to detail four new machines, along with its plans for software and services surrounding them.

The new machines will add firepower to Suns line Opteron server line. But they also mark the beginning of a broad server refresh that the company will carry out in coming months. Sun, which has been taking a three-pronged approach to selling servers since partnering with chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices Inc. in Nov. 2003, has been working to right itself financially and to grow its share of the market. The refresh, which will eventually touch all three of its major server lines, will play a major role in its future fortunes, industry observers say.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about why Sun sought to partner with AMD.

Galaxy machines, which mark the beginning of the cycle, will double up on many of the features found inside Suns current Opteron machines. Where its current Sun Fire V20z and Sun Fire V40z models offer either two or four Opteron processors and up to 32GB of memory, the new models will sport two, four and up to as many as eight dual-core Opterons, sources familiar with Suns plans said.

The extra processors will help set the machines apart from competitors, which offer two and four processor Opteron machines. However, more pedestrian factors such as price and serviceability will weigh just as heavily on Galaxys success or failure, one analyst said.

"Its going to be very important for [Sun] to have very competitive and strong two processor and four processor systems as well. Thats where the real battle is going to be fought" with Dell Inc., IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co., said Gordon Haff, analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H.

Although he declined to comment directly on the forthcoming Sun hardware, the companys success "is going to be a case of getting all of the little things right and doing incremental improvements," Haff said.

The Galaxy machines are expected to span a wide range of configurations, fitting in as few as two to as many as eight processors, and coming in both rack mount and blade server configurations. Several models are expected to include a 1U or 1.75-inch high, twin processor socket model equipped with two PCI-Express add-in card slots and capable of making use of up to 16GB of memory and up to two hard drives; a 2U model with two processor sockets, up to 16GB of memory and up to four drives as well as 5 PCI-X slots. Two 4U models, one with four processor sockets, up to 32GB of memory, up to four drives and six PCI-X slots, and another with eight sockets, eight PCI-X slots and up to 64GB of memory and up to four drives are also expected, sources familiar with Suns plans said.

Sun will push the Opteron processor machines for jobs such as Web transactions, while addressing high-end network-facing jobs as well as datacenter applications with new machines based on its own, Niagara SPARC-based processors, due early next year.

Together, the Opteron line and the Niagara line will be offered for what Sun calls network-facing computing tasks, which include Web transactions.

Niagara, for its part, is expected to be better optimized for mutlicore than Opteron, meaning it should deliver a higher level of price performance, Haff said.

But Sun still faces potential problems in that its Opteron and Niagara servers will tackle similar jobs.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about the Sun Niagara chips design.

"The space where Niagara is focused is a space that has moved over to x86 to a large degree," Haff said. But few customers approach a computer company, whether its HP, IBM or Sun and that the processor theyre buying isnt important to them.

That means "You have customers and potential customers—some of whom are existing SPARC customers and some of whom are x86—and for their own reasons they want one architecture or another," Haff said. "So the reality is that although there is certainly an overlap its probably not as big as it looks on paper."

Only if Niagara were to fail in delivering better price performance than Opteron or other x86 chips on certain applications would the forthcoming chip fail in its mission, he said.

Sun aims to begin delivering its Niagara servers broadly in the first quarter of 2006, following a best program what will see the systems to customers and software developers, a company executive said in a recent interview with Ziff Davis Internet. The company plans to add a new generation of Niagara chips will arrive in a year to 18 months after that, the executive said.

Meanwhile, when it comes to tackling datacenter jobs, Sun has said it will deliver its UltraSPARCIV+, an updated version of the UltraSPARCIV in the latter half of this year. The Advanced Product Line, which includes SPARC processor servers developed under a partnership between Sun and Fujitsu LTD., will arrive in 2006, the company has said.

Suns server refresh wont only be important in satisfying customer demands. Its recent financial troubles mean the machines will be even more important for its health as a company, Haff said.

"Basically Sun needs to make money off of these things," he said. "To its credit, Sun has managed not to implode—it has been managing to operate at break even for a while now. But certainly at some point it needs to do better than that. With this kind of round of products coming in the latter part of this year—it is kind of at the point where if Sun doesnt really start to pick up some momentum with these new products one has to ask whats left? What ammunition does it have left at that point?"

Sun representatives did not immediately return a call requesting comment.