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.
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 eWEEK.com Monday, are single- and dual-Opteron processor systems, respectively.
Bundling with Subscriptions
When the systems were first unveiled in June at JavaOne, Sun president and chief operating officer Jonathan Schwartz said they would be bundled with developer tool subscriptions as part of a promotion for the Sun Developer Network.
Sun also auctioned off some of the first Java Workstations to come off the assembly line, autographed by James Gosling, Sun s chief technology officer of developer products and the “father of Java.”
The bundling of software and services with the new workstations is part of an effort by Sun to turn Dells business model on its head. “Could Dell do this [software-hardware subscription] model? Theyd have to deal with Microsoft to see who takes a hit on the margin,” Healy said.
The Java Workstations are Suns first desktop workstations based on a processor other than the companys own SPARC line of CPUs since the 1980s. Suns early workstations were based on Motorola processors until 1987, when the company introduced its 386i, based on the Intel 386 processor.
A successor, the 486i—based on the Intel 486—was introduced in 1990 but was soon canceled; only a few ever made it to customers.
“The big difference between those systems and the new ones,” Healy said, “is that the [386i] wasnt very fast” in comparison with other systems of the day. The new systems, he claimed, are the fastest in their class.
The Java Workstation W1100z set a new record for the SPEC CPU2000 floating point benchmark for single-processor machines. “We are beating Dells Xeon box by 140 percent,” said Harmeet Chauhan, the product line manager for Sun Java Workstations.
And unlike all of Suns previous workstations, the Java Workstations are certified to run the Windows operating system, according to Healy. While the systems come by default with the Solaris 9 OS for x86, they can be configured with multiple operating systems, including Red Hats 32-bit or 64-bit Red Hat Enterprise Linux workstation or SuSE Linux. Users can choose to add a Windows OS as well.
Sun entered into Microsofts Windows certification program as part of the settlement between the two companies in April.
The biggest challenge to Sun will be getting customers whove already left the Solaris fold for Intel-compatible platforms to come back for its Opteron systems. If the Java Workstations fail to sell well, Suns workstation market share probably will remain in free fall.
“This will be the first quarter that any first-tier vendors will be offering an AMD-based solution,” Kros said. IBM also has an Opteron-based workstation on the market. “In short, its too early to tell, but by all indications, it should have a fairly positive response. It will definitely eat further into overall RISC market-share numbers.”