Sun goes big with blade servers

Stretching its wings in the x86 market, Sun has launched its first 'proper' blade system along with a new high-capacity server/storage system

After seeing its first efforts in the booming blade market come to naught, Sun has announced a new high-end blade system and launched two new hybrid server/storage systems, all based on AMD Opteron 64bit processors.

In a crowded market, Sun is banking on differentiating its new industry-standard servers through their high-capacity, high-speed networking and low cost. The company is claiming a cost-per-gigabyte of $2 (£1.08) for the hybrid servers.

The Sun Blade 8000 is the company's second stab at the blade market after the failure of its first offering, the Sun Blade 1600,  which suffered in competition with aggressively priced blade systems from IBM and HP.

"This is our first proper blade," said Paul Leonard, Sun's data centre marketing manager. "There are no compromises. The throughput is higher than anyone else's."

The 8000, including a chassis and a low-end blade, starts at around £12,000. But it is no ordinary blade and, at the higher end, a top-end blade with four dual-core 2.6GHz Opterons and 64GB of memory costs around £30,000.

The hybrid server/storage systems are the Sun SureFire X4500 and X4600. They combine high-capacity storage and server in one unit which, Sun says, is optimised for "highest throughput rates and high storage density".
Both are available with up to 48 disc drives at 250GB capacity, and the X4600 is also available with 500GB discs offering 24 terabytes (TB) in a single server.

Sun maintains that the system is designed for applications such as grid computing, so total capacities can be much larger. One example is the Tokyo Institute of Technology, which is installing X4600s as part of a 640-server supercomputer installation.

The 24TB of storage will fit into a standard 7-inch rack space, allowing Sun to claim that it is now among the leaders in storage density — usually measured as capacity per square foot of floor space and rapidly becoming an industry benchmark standard.

The X4500 costs £21,000 with the 250MB disks option and £46,000 with the 500MB disks — more than twice as expensive for twice the disk storage. "That is down to the price of disks," said Leonard. "They are just more expensive."

Now, with an eight-way server available, Sun believes the time is right for multiprocessor x86 servers. Sun believes that with Solaris, x86 machines have a reliable operating system that can gracefully handle otherwise crushing workloads.

HP sees things differently. "Today, 99.8 percent of all x86 servers have between one and four sockets," said Mark Potter, vice president of HP's BladeSystem division. "The eight-socket market today — despite IBM's investment, and Sun I don't think is going to move this at all — was 0.7 percent of units shipped."

Sun is aiming the X4600 squarely at HP's four-socket Opteron-based DL585, with competitive pricing for a four-Opteron model, Fowler said. But while the systems are the same size — seven inches thick — Sun's can be upgraded to eight processors.

One reason HP and Dell favour smaller designs with four or fewer sockets is that individual processors themselves are getting more powerful. Chips these days have dual-processing cores, and Intel and AMD plan quad-core designs in 2007.

For Sun, which will accommodate quad-core Opterons, that just means the opportunity for even beefier models. Fowler said the X4600 was designed with quad-core Opterons from the beginning. The systems also use AMD's higher-speed Opteron SC models, which run a notch faster but produce more waste heat.

When Sun acquired Kealia, it cancelled its original product, an Opteron server with massive amounts of storage capacity. But when Fowler took over the division in 2004, he reversed that decision. The result is the X4500, seven inches tall but able to house 48 Serial ATA hard drives in close proximity to dual Opteron processors.

CNET's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.