The first servers are emerging this month from a Sun Microsystems-Fujitsu alliance begun three years ago in a major effort to keep the Sparc processor line alive and kicking.
Overall, the Sparc Enterprise Server systems are jointly designed, but they use Fujitsu's dual-core Sparc64 VI "Olympus" processor and Sun's Solaris operating system. They range from a 4-processor M4000 system that starts around $50,000 to a 64-processor M9000 that can cost millions of dollars.
The companies struck the partnership in darker days for the Sparc chip family, when Sun was still out of the favor it enjoyed in the dot-com glory days. Competitors weren't suffering, though: IBM's Power processor family was gaining share in high-end servers, and x86 processors--Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron--were growing from a low-end stronghold.
Sun concluded, at the time, that it needed a radical revamp of its UltraSparc models, scrapping the UltraSparc V in favor of designs acquired from Afara Websystems that instead emphasized cramming numerous processing engines called cores onto a single chip. But Sparc needed a concrete future, and Fujitsu's dual-core, dual-thread Sparc64 VI "Olympus" chip fit the bill, so the companies began a partnership to build what was then called the Advanced Product Line (APL). It has now been renamed the Sparc Enterprise Server line.
Some of that urgency felt back in 2004 has since abated. Sun's UltraSparc T1 "Niagara"-based servers--the first fruits of the Afara technology--are doing modestly well. A high-end cousin dubbed "Rock" is due to ship in servers in the second half of 2008. And demand for servers using the current UltraSparc IV+ processors has healthily exceeded Sun's expectations.
"Had UltraSparc IV+ had less legs than it's proven to have, had APL been earlier, had Rock been later than it appears it's going to be, APL would have been more important to Sun," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "As it is, it's a nice product update that Sun got without a whole lot of money and effort."
John Fowler, Sun's executive vice president for servers, and Chiaki Ito, a corporate senior executive vice president at Fujitsu, plan to announce the new systems Tuesday in New York. They were due to ship in mid-2006, according to the original plan announced in 2004, but the schedule slipped into 2007. In February, Sun said they would ship in the first half of the year.
The Sparc Enterprise Server systems will have roughly 50 percent improvement in performance compared with the UltraSparc IV+ systems, said Alison Harapat, director of marketing for Sun's Sparc Enterprise servers. And customers can upgrade them with the Sparc64 VII, a quad-core model. As with Sparc64 V and VI, each core on the VII can run two simultaneous instruction sequences called threads and has reliability features stemming from Fujitsu's mainframe line.
The Sparc Enterprise Server partnership has had two main components: the Olympus based systems, and Sun's Niagara-based T1000 and T2000, which Fujitsu will sell.
The companies, while sharing development costs, will have separate sales forces pursuing the same customers.
"We expect to gain some share with these products," said Graham Kelley, senior director of server product marketing for Fujitsu Computer Systems. "The target is HP and IBM."
The companies are announcing five Olympus-based machines, the four-processor M4000, eight-processor M5000, 16-processor M8000, and the M9000-32 and M9000-64, with 32 and 64 processors, respectively. The high-end and low-end systems will be available in April, and the midrange systems in early May, Harapat said.
The systems can be sliced into partitions, each with its own operating system. The minimum partition size is a single processor, letting customers consolidate work of smaller servers onto fewer, larger machines. However, Harapat said, more than 10 percent of customers want to run a single copy of the operating system on a top-end machine.
"It's not the majority," she said, "But we do have customers today running fully configured systems, maxed out, and looking forward to the additional headroom."
The systems run only Sun's newer Solaris 10 operating system. For those using Solaris 8 or 9, Sun just released faster UltraSparc IV+ systems with 1.95GHz and 2.1GHz processors.