Sun Microsystems is a company in a state of flux, undergoing an aggressive restructuring while continuing its rollout of new products, as the July 11 launch of three new Opteron-based servers—including a blade server and scalable rack-mount system—showed. Among the key changes was the combining of Suns Opteron “Galaxy” systems unit with its traditional SPARC business. John Fowler, executive vice president of the new Sun Systems Group, spoke with eWEEK Senior Editor Jeffrey Burt about the new business unit, Opteron and SPARC servers, and how the Santa Clara, Calif., company is working with its customers during such a time of dramatic change.
Whats the advantage for Sun and for your customers in combining the two server groups?
We have been sharing engineering activities in the past between the x64 and SPARC teams. It obviously makes it easier if youre one organization.
The more interesting thing comes around in other parts of the organization. For example, operations, supply chain and marketing. Theres a whole bunch of areas there where we can position and market the products as a holistic family regardless of what chip is included. Certainly well do that.
Then on the operations side, as we share more engineering things, theres a bunch of things we can make more efficient there as well.
There certainly seem to be benefits for Sun. Where are the benefits for the customers?
What youre going to see is a lot more work actually to create a product line that people can deploy in multiple architectures. What you saw with Galaxy and Niagara systems is a shared mechanical design. What youre going to see going forward is a lot of sharing on systems management and technology on the systems themselves. And obviously, with blade products, youre going to see blades that include both SPARC and x64. Putting the groups together just makes it easier to do all of those things as a cohesive team.
Again, one of the things I said before is this is something we had actually planned for a long time. We first wanted to grow the x64 business to be pretty healthy for us, then look to combine the organizations. So were actually following through with something we planned for a while.
Regarding blades, youve got the Opteron blade on deck, and Opteron and SPARC blades for telecommunications companies. Do you expect to roll out SPARC blades for the general customer?
We havent said specifically what kinds of blades well be doing, but we are going to be—and we announced on [July 11]—that in the future, blades platforms will include SPARC. Its just that the initial announcements happen to be x64. I havent said exactly what SPARC [chips] theyll contain, but we certainly will have SPARC blades.
The reorganization kicked off a lot of speculation regarding the SPARC side of the house, speculation that the cuts were going to impact that side in particular. What can you say about that, and will this mean a greater reliance on Fujitsu in future development of SPARC?
Obviously were also looking to tweak the expense profile of the company, and certainly Sun is doing it now. What I will say is there really are no changes to any of the publicly stated systems road maps at this point. Were continuing forward with the APL [SPARC-based Advanced Product Line] with Fujitsu as we previously worked on the high-end machines, and we still have the very robust SPARC portfolio with “Niagara II” and with “Rock” coming, and all the systems that are around it.
I think the thing you will see is a lot more common mechanical designs and common systems management, [and] other parts of the systems that are shared more and more between x64 and SPARC, for kind of obvious reasons. Not just because it makes it more efficient from a [research and development] standpoint, but it also makes it simpler for the customers.
Regarding the shared infrastructure, what will all this mean for customers two, three or four years down the road?
What people will see is the ability to plan a data center for SPARC as well as for x64 using blades in racks and using a set of common thermal and mechanical designs across all of those, so you only have to plan them once.
But more interestingly, [customers will see] a very common systems management. For example, on the x64 side, you see technologies like IPMI [Intelligent Platform Management Interface standard] and others that are really considered more x64-oriented. Youll see technologies like that also coming to the SPARC program, so, as a customer, once you get used a certain set of systems management [capabilities], youll be able to use it all across the infrastructure. Thats going to be easier to deal with.
Does the fact that Sun has put the person who was in charge of the Opteron-based systems in charge of all systems now give any sort of signal to the industry regarding the importance of SPARC going forward?
Ive only been the Opteron guy for the last couple of years. Ive been the Sun guy for 16 years, so people whove been around Sun for a while actually dont think of me necessarily as the Opteron guy. They more commonly think of me as the software guy, because Ive done that for a much longer period of time than for Opteron.
I think people inside Sun dont see it as that. They just see it as a logical evolution of the platform. On the outside of Sun, theres been really no question in that regard, and I think the reason for that is we have such a portfolio of products. We just came out with Niagara, weve talked about Niagara II being not too far away, and we have Rock under development, and … UltraSPARC IV+ is not very old, we have APL. So we have a tremendous amount of products on the SPARC side. I think thats what most people look at to decide if something is happening or not.
As I work with the teams, its pretty obvious: With SPARC we can innovate at the microprocessor level, as well as all the systems designs and software. With x64 we can innovate with systems designs and software throughout. Were not actually designing the microprocessor itself. Theres still just a lot we can do on both fronts.
Customer Confidence, the Opteron
Business and Intel Chips”>
Regarding the innovation, its something Sun continues to stress. At the same time, youre going through a lot of change. How do you keep customer confidence high during times like these? What are you saying to them?
Customers are always interested in understanding where the road map is going. The key for them is seeing what the future products hold and where the road map is going, so we obviously spend a lot of time talking to customers about that.
At the same time, you have to remember that a lot of customers have their own issues and challenges, too, so its not like they dont understand. They just want to know whats going on.
What we do is spend a lot of time one-on-one with customers and channel partners, explaining our road mapping so they understand where were going, and thats the important thing for them and thats what we spend a lot of time doing.
Thats really no different during a time of change and during a time of stability because were constantly adjusting the road map even in the good times—we come with new technologies and new product ideas.
Can you give us an update on the Opteron business? Where do you see that going?
We just finished what is our fourth quarter—calendar Q2—and we havent released our results yet, so I really cant comment on that. But through the third quarter, which was calendar first quarter, we continued to grow rapidly. My expectation is that this will continue to go forward on a continued basis because were about to introduce a bunch of new products [including a blade server and four- to 16-way system, announced July 11] as well, so well be appealing to a broader range of customers, with the blades and the larger server and “Thumper.”
In terms of what difference it makes for Sun, theres not just the hardware revenue. The hardware revenue is just what you see, but theres also services and software and storage, and all of those have been growing right along with the hardware unit revenue. This is actually turning into a good-sized business for Sun.
Obviously its smaller than the SPARC business still, but you have to start somewhere, and growing rapidly for seven straight quarters is a good way to start.
How much of the Opteron business is with new customers?
The majority are customers we already have seen or already know. Thats not necessarily an issue, because were already in virtually all of the Fortune 200-style companies, so in the enterprise, its hard to find a company that doesnt have Sun somewhere in their enterprise. But what is has enabled us to do is go after—even in customers we already know—opportunities, departments and applications that we never could before. With channel partners, we can address Windows, we can address Linux, address high-performance technical computing [and] virtually anything in the Web tier, which is application servers, Web servers. Between Niagara and Galaxy, we can go address those.
Whats happened is that while the number of purely new customers is low, the reality is that were a big part of their computer business already, so thats not a surprise. But we have actually been able to [offer] many new applications.
I like to very, very broadly define computing into three very general categories. The first category I call “back office.” Thats traditional ERP [enterprise resource planning], database and so on. Of course, weve been very strong there for a very long time.
The second very broad area I call “Internet infrastructure.” This is directly servers, application servers, Web servers and so on. Galaxy and Niagara [servers] are both very strong plays in Internet infrastructure, which is a big growth area for us, and something we used to be very strong in. Over the last five years we werent as strong, but now were very, very strong again.
The third broad area I call “technical computing.” Thats workstations and high-performance grids and so on, and again, this is a place that Opteron plays very well. In these three broad areas now, the systems portfolio is very strong. Weve been traditionally strong in back-office [workloads], and with UltraSPARC IV+, that hasnt changed.
Then Galaxy and Niagara make us very strong in Web services, Web infrastructure and obviously in technical computing. Thats where x64 plays.
When customers talk about their applications, we can now not only talk about the back office, we can talk about all three of those with great offers in all three areas.
Regarding the issues of power and cooling, how is Sun addressing them in the new Opteron systems that you have come out with?
All the way through the design, weve worked very hard to use the most efficient power conversion and power supply techniques, the most efficient fans, the best cooling. These follow on from the Galaxy environment themselves.
We use AMD, which is extremely power-efficient, and upcoming SPARC systems will use SPARC chips as well, which are very power-efficient. The focus is on power efficiency, which is, how much work do you get done per watt? For us, its the most important thing.
For example, the Sun Blade 8000, which is a big-blade form factor, if you pack it with 10 four-socket blades, youre going to actually consume a fair amount of power, but because its very efficient and has a huge amount of I/O, youll be very efficient on a performance-per-watt basis.
AMD has boasted a significant advantage over Intel in power efficiency in recent years. With new chips like “Woodcrest,” Intel seems to be getting back into the game where energy and cooling are concerned. Has what Intel has done swayed your mind regarding the use of Intel processors in Sun systems?
In the case of our Sun blade and the big 16-way server, these are actually four-socket and up, so Woodcrest is just not applicable to those.
What Ive said is that were always evaluating and want to use the best technology thats available. We dont have any concrete plans to offer Woodcrest at this time, but if customers are interested in it in entry-level products, we are certainly open to providing those.
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