Sun fights back with mid-range servers

Beset by delays, Sun's servers finally launch with the long-awaited Ultrasparc III, but there's still no sign of the high-end StarCat

Sun Microsystems unveiled four new midrange Unix servers on Wednesday, a critical milestone in the company's drawn-out effort to move its product line to UltraSparc III chips and stave off reinvigorated competition from IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

The servers will come with eight, 12 or 24 CPUs and incorporate high-end features previously available only in the current top-end 64-processor E10000, said Shahin Khan, head of server marketing for Sun. The new machines will range in price from about $80,000 (£56,000) to well over $500,000 (£350,000) and will likely account for the bulk of Sun's sales, Khan said.

The servers are key for Sun. The company caught IBM, HP and Compaq Computer flat-footed by selling products in droves to Internet companies and big businesses, but the competition has been fighting back fiercely.

HP's Superdome and IBM's p680 have arrived to compete with Sun's E10000. HP is working on new midrange server products coming later this year.

IBM also has been working behind the scenes to recruit administrators familiar with Sun technology. Under its AIX for Solaris Administrators Project, IBM has been teaching Sun customers how to migrate to IBM's technology. Approximately 1,000 administrators have graduated from the stealth programme.

According to IBM, the programme has helped the company nab $150m (£105m) worth of business. In addition, the company has reorganized its product line and management to dim Sun's prospects.

Besides fighting its competitors, Sun has had to grapple with a spate of delays. The UltraSparc III processor arrived about a year late, and the schedule for releasing the servers has slipped several times.

But now Sun is getting back in gear. "Sun doesn't get the next generation out nearly as fast as they should or as fast as they tell you they will," said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. "But when they get into a good groove, they tend to have the processor and server humming on the same frequency. I think we're coming into that period again."

While Sun may be getting its new product line into shape, the overall market hasn't been doing well. The Internet effect -- spawning start-ups and new initiatives at traditional companies -- has waned in importance, and slumping server sales have hurt Sun, HP, Intel and others.

Servers handle such critical computing tasks as keeping track of Macy's sales or sending out eBay's Web pages. The market for servers increased seven percent from $56bn (£40bn) in 1999 to $60bn (£42bn) in 2000, according to market research firm IDC.

The new systems -- the eight-processor 3800, the 12-processor 4800 and 4810, and the 24-processor 6800 -- all come with partitioning. Partitioning, once available only on traditional mainframe computers, has been an advantage Sun has had over IBM, Compaq and HP for years.

Partitioning is useful for companies that want to test software without disrupting the main job the server is working on, said Eunice. And when partition sizes can be changed without having to reboot the server, the technology is useful to adjust to changing demands handled by different partitions.

"It gives you control over how much of your resources you throw at a problem," Eunice said.

HP added partitioning with its Superdome server, and IBM is expected to add a sophisticated version with its coming "Regatta" Unix server due this fall.

Sun calls its new servers "midframes" and acknowledges its debt to the stalwart mainframes that once dominated computing but now are relegated to a comparatively small corner of the market. "We continue to look at the mainframe as a place that gives us new ideas," Khan said.

Sun also owes thanks to Cray Research, the company that originally designed the E10000. Sun acquired the product line, and Wednesday's new servers will be the first machines with partitioning abilities Sun itself has designed.

Microsoft and Intel, meanwhile, continue to chip away at the market for generally more powerful Unix servers. Microsoft Product Manager Michael Gould, who helps oversee the company's Windows 2000 operating system, argues that eight-CPU servers are now a fixture in the "Wintel" landscape and that Intel chips cost less and advance faster than Sun's.

"The UltraSparc III systems are late and they're not enough," he said.

Khan raised the possibility that the still-unreleased top-end Sun server, "StarCat," could be coming later than Sun hoped, declining to comment on whether the company will meet a deadline of this spring.

"We've learned a lesson not really specifying a certain date that can be an anchor," Khan said. "These projects are complex, and they're looking good. We're very much in the vicinity of the expectations we've set."

When the first UltraSparc III servers and workstations were released in September, Sun said StarCat would be released in the spring, and the UltraSparc III chip speed would be increased from 750MHz to 900MHz in the first quarter of 2001.

The chip speed increase still hasn't happened, and the 3800, 4800 and 6800 will be released with 750MHz chips, Khan said. The 900MHz chips, which use copper interconnect technology, are expected "within a quarter or so," he added.

"You have to assume from time to time your yields will not be as high," Khan said, referring to the number of chips in a batch that can run at the desired speed. Texas Instruments builds all of Sun's UltraSparc chips.

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