Sun Java Workstations Leave SPARC Behind

The company's new workstations, based on AMD's Opteron line, are set to take on Dell and other low-cost workstation contenders. But can they win back the company's lost customers?

Sun Microsystems on Monday announced its first line of non-SPARC workstations in more than 15 years.

The new workstations, powered by Advanced Micro Devices Inc.s Opteron line, are an attempt to reclaim the companys dominance in engineering and scientific computing applications. And Suns packaging of the systems is clearly aimed at beating back the encroachment of low-cost PC competitors such as Dell Inc.

The new Sun systems also represent a further extension of the Java brand beyond its software development platform, as the company attempts to counter the erosion of its workstation business over the past four years. Branding the systems as "Sun Java Workstations," Sun is selling them individually as well as bundling them as part of software subscription programs.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about how Sun is extending the umbrella of the Java brand beyond the Java software platform.

Suns share of the workstation market has dwindled dramatically over the past four years, from 20.7 percent in 2000 to only 8.4 percent in 2003, according to Anthony Kros, an analyst at Gartner Dataquest.

"Sun has been struggling in recent quarters, save for a decent quarter here and there, due to the current migration away from expensive, proprietary-based systems over to more cost-efficient x86-32 and x86-64 solutions," Kros said. By sticking to its SPARC platform, he said, Sun has been limited to selling into what he calls its "entrenched base."

Meanwhile, more and more of the applications that traditionally required the horsepower of RISC processor-powered Unix "pizza boxes" have become manageable on cheaper and increasingly powerful desktop PCs.

Ironically, to save its workstation business, Sun has embraced the PC model—both the architecture and some of the business model—that brought down that business.

"I dont think the industry will get back to where it was in 2000," said Brian Healy, Suns director of workstation product marketing. "But these systems will give us a bump back in that direction."

"This is a good move for Sun," Kros said, "as it can now offer a price-competitive, x86-based solution to new customers with a need for 64-bitness, or existing customers who are thinking of making the move away from SPARC-based systems." But how well Sun gets that message out to customers is key, he added, "lest they go the way of [Silicon Graphics]."

The Sun Java Workstation W1100z and Sun Java Workstation W2100z, as reported by Monday, are single- and dual-Opteron processor systems, respectively.

Next Page: Bundling workstations with developer tool subscriptions.