Sun kills Cobalt

Sun has relegated the last of its Cobalt servers to the 'end-of-life' section. It's the end of the brand for which Sun paid £1.2bn - but not of the server appliance market, which Cobalt virtually created

Just three years after Sun paid £1.2bn for server appliance maker Cobalt networks, the computing giant has killed off the line.

The move marks the end of the Cobalt brand at Sun, and appears to indicate the end of Sun’s first brief flirtation with Linux as a server operating system. Sun sells Linux for the desktop in the shape of the Sun Java Desktop, but its current server line now runs Solaris exclusively.

Sun was not immediately available to comment. On the company's Web site, the latest Cobalt appliance server, the dual-processor Raq 550, has joined the Raq4R and other Cobalt devices in the end-of-life section. No new Cobalt devices are listed and Sun’s entry-level server area is now populated exclusively with the Sun Fire range of servers.

The cull marks the end of the line for one of the dot-com era's most innovative hardware manufacturers. As a start-up in the late 90s, Cobalt Networks popularised, if not created, the notion of the appliances -- servers dedicated to a single task. Cobalt launched its first product, the Qube in March 1998. This small, easy to use Web and email server and gateway was designed for small businesses.

But it was the launched of the Raq -- a 1U high rack-mounted unit -- that made Cobalt’s mark on the Internet, as ISPs filled their cabinets with the distinctive blue pizza boxes at the peak of the dot-com boom. At Cobalt’s customer conferences, the then chief executive Stephen DeWitt used the analogy of vending machines to demonstrate how appliance servers would revolutionise the way in which companies buy software.

Other manufacturers including IBM and Dell began shipping similar products, but none matched the success of Cobalt, and in 2000 Sun bought the company for £1.2bn; a tacit recognition that its own low-end servers weren't selling well enough in the market for hosting Web pages. However, the marriage was not an easy one. Some Cobalt engineers left, citing a clash of cultures between Sun and Cobalt. For Sun, the acquisition meant more than acquiring an unfamiliar brand; the company also found itself, for the first time, selling high volume servers built using a mixture of Linux and x86 processors.

Sun has since learnt to live with these high volume technologies; it is continuing its Linux experiments, most recently with the Sun Java Desktop, and now has deals with Intel and AMD on the Net Fire range of servers.

Sun also seems to recognise that there is still life in the server appliance, as it continues to sell the Sun-banded iForce VPN/Firewall Appliance, powered by Sun and Check Point. Analyst firm IDC reported recently that sales of security appliances surged during the third quarter of 2003 as enterprises installed them in their main networks, having seen lower-end devices prove themselves in branch offices. Some 20 percent of these cost over $25,000 (£14,041), compared to just 10 percent in the second quarter, according to IDC's figures. Cisco and NetScreen continue to dominate the market for security appliances, said IDC, and both companies have seen revenue growth of over 20 percent compared to the same period last year. Of the big players, Nokia has fared the worst, losing market share both in terms of units and revenue. While it is now No. 2 for revenue, with 15.1 percent of the market, it is comes fifth in unit shipments, with only 6.8 percent of the market, behind Cisco (27.7 percent), NetScreen (20.8 percent), SonicWall (13.2 percent), and WatchGuard (12.1 percent).

For security applications, many companies are turning to appliances because they are easier to install and run than software alone, said IDC. Sun did not figure in the top five security appliance vendors.