Sun Banks On 'Uniqueness' Of New Server Offerings

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Andy Bechtolsheim, chief architect and senior vice president at Sun, Santa Clara, Calif., and the designer behind the company's successful Sun Fire x64 Advanced Micro Devices-based servers that first shipped earlier this year, said he believes the new products offer Sun a differentiation point in the increasingly crowded industry-standard server space.

"We are focused on uniqueness right now," he said.

One product that stood out to VARs as an original is the Sun Fire X4500 Data Server. The server combines into one 4U chassis up to four processors, Solaris 10 with its Solaris Zettabyte File System (ZFS), and 24 Tbytes of storage—48 individual 500-Gbyte drives spaced in a manner that will allow air to flow in between the drives for cooling efficiency.

Sun is positioning the Sun Fire X4500 as an application server with lots of storage. Bechtolsheim said it is perfect as an online database, media or surveillance server. In particular, Bechtolsheim said that he expects customers to experiment with combining the box with open-source databases to run queries on unstructured data.

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Mark Teter, CTO of Advanced Systems Group, a Sun partner in Denver, said the Sun Fire X4500 is one of Sun's most unique products.

"You have a hardware platform that leverages the ZFS file system and provides a very cost-effective file service solution," he said. "I think this will differentiate Sun among other system vendors."

Teter said the product could also host a content management application, be used as a virtual tape library or as a potential replacement for a SAN.

Another area in which Sun tried to differentiate itself was the amount of processors supported in its servers. Bechtolsheim said the new Sun Fire X4600 server will support up to eight processors in a 4U chassis by employing a variety of cooling tricks. Among them were using 90 percent efficient fans sourced from a manufacturer supporting the telecom industry, directing airflow through the chassis efficiently, adding dense air holes in the back of the chassis to let hot air escape, and using "gigantic" heatsinks on the CPUs.

The server is intended for customers that want to use either four or eight processors, currently a minute segment of the overall server market.

But Bechtolsheim said he believes that space will grow rapidly as the high-performance computing (HPC) market clamors for more compute capability and the corporate market continues to consolidate servers.

"Most of the industry is stuck on the two-socket mind-set," he said. The bulk of Sun's existing x64 Sun Fire servers support one or two CPUs; only one Sun Fire model supports two or four CPUs.

Moving up to four and eight sockets also gives Sun a technology edge with the Opteron technology from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD, Bechtolsheim said. Sun has been struggling to engineer a comeback over the past several years.

Though Santa Clara-based Intel recently rolled out a much-improved server CPU for one- and two-socket systems, its next offering for the four-socket and above space, code-named Tulsa and due in the third quarter, is still based on its older NetBurst architecture.

Moreover, Bechtolsheim said that competition between the two chip makers will bring four-socket server CPU prices down to a level more palatable to IT buyers. "The premium will come down based on competition between AMD and Intel," he said.

Sun also stayed with the high-density theme with its new blade server, the Sun Blade 8000 Modular Server. Sun's version is larger than its branded competitors—19U, or nearly one-half of a rack in size—and holds up to 10 four-socket blades.

Sun is using PCI Express for all of the server's I/O, opting to go with the industry standard for compatibility and longevity.

"We have really big blades," said Bechtolsheim. "They are optimized for four sockets and are better for consolidation and virtualization."

By using good airflow design and efficient fans, he added, customers can fill the entire chassis with blades without suffering heat-related problems. In the future, Bechtolsheim said Sun will likely offer a SPARC blade as well as an eight-socket option.

Sun pulled its "first-generation" blade server last year with a promise to re-enter the market this year.

Partners say that Sun needs a blade to compete.

"Customers are buying into the concept of blades for ease of deployment, power savings and manageability," said Vince Conroy, CTO of FusionStorm, a Sun partner based in San Francisco. Sun needs a product in the space, Conroy added.