Sun jumps back into blades, expands Opteron line

After exiting the market last year in face of stiff competition, Sun next week is expected to introduce a new blade server as it fills out its x64-based product line, which has been a bright spot in the struggling company’s financial picture.

At Sun’s quarterly news announcement on Tuesday, newly-appointed CEO Jonathan Schwartz and Executive Vice President John Fowler are expected to unveil a number of new products, including a blade server that features modular PCI-Express on the backplane, eliminating the need for mezzanine cards on each blade; a high-performance technical server that scales from four to 16 processors; a media server; and an Opteron-based archival storage appliance, according to sources.

The products are the next in a line of servers designed by Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, who returned to Sun when it acquired server maker Kealia in 2004. Sun introduced its first systems designed by Bechtolsheim in the fall, rolling out the low-cost Sun Fire X2100 and the enterprise-class X4100 and X4200.

Since then Sun has seen growing demand for the systems, joining IBM as the only server vendors to outpace the market in x86 server sales in the first quarter of 2006, increasing its factory revenue by 84%, according to IDC. Sun’s x86 market share, however, still languishes at around 2%, according to Gartner.

Despite the boost in its low-end server sales, Sun faces challenges. It has rarely posted a profit in the past five years, reporting a net loss of $217 million for the most recent quarter. CEO Scott McNealy stepped aside in April, and shortly after taking the helm Schwartz announced a companywide reorganization that will include between 4,000 and 5,000 layoffs.

At the same time, Sun views its low-end offerings as key to its plan to return to profitability. This week’s announcements illustrate Sun’s commitment, analysts say.

“Sun took a long time in getting these products to market but can still reap advantage by being a latecomer,” says Vernon Turner, group vice president and general manager, enterprise computing, at IDC. “These product launches will be a test for Sun . . . as we get a glimpse of how the company will be run in the future.”

In the new Sun Blade system, ten 4-socket Sun 8400 blades reside in the Sun Blade3 8000 chassis. The starting price for the chassis and a dual-core blade server is $19,940.

For example, the new blade server is being introduced with a number of advanced features, such as cooling, management and systems design that analysts say make it competitive with third-generation products from market leaders HP and IBM.

Sun declined comment for this story, but in an earlier interview, Graham Lovell, senior director of x64 systems at Sun, said the new blades would “look more like standard servers than blades.”

“One of the things that was critical for us in the blades area was today's customers have to make a number of compromises and face a number of hurdles when they deploy blades in areas such as I/O throughput and management,” he says. “Expect our next-generation blades to remove those.”

According to sources, the blades will include integrated PCI-Express modules in the backplane so that the blades themselves do not need individual mezzanine cards to connect to outside networks. In addition, the blades are designed for longevity, offering adequate power and cooling to support future generations of the Opteron processor.

As for rack-mountable servers, Sun is expanding its line with the Sun Fire X4600, a 4U server that scales from four to 16 processing cores. Like the smaller X4100 and X4200, the X4600 was designed with cooling and systems management in mind. It includes redundant fans and power supplies, and a service processor to enable advanced remote management.

The X4600, which runs on a single-core 3-GHz or a dual-core 2.6-GHz Opteron processor, supports up to 64GB of memory and four internal Serial Attached SCSI drives for a total capacity of 292GB. It includes four Gigabit Ethernet ports and six PCI-Express and two PCI-X slots to support high-speed interconnects such as InfiniBand, according to data sheets on Sun’s Web site.

The server is geared for high-performance computing as well as enterprise workloads such as databases, Sun says. In addition, because the server supports VMware ESX Server as well as Solaris 10, Linux and Windows, it also is targeted as a consolidation platform.

The Sun Fire X4600 starts at $30,000, according to sources.

In an area concentrated on accelerated storage and retrieval of media and image files, Sun is expected to announce its Thumper storage appliance. Thumper - the Sun Fire X4500 -- consists of two dual-core Opteron servers and 24TB of Serial ATA drives. It uses the Hypertransport technology to interconnect the processors to I/O for faster performance, source say.

Thumper is based on technology Sun acquired from its acquisition of Kealia. Thumper uses the ZFS file system, included in Solaris 10. The Sun Fire X4500 starts at $33,000.

Further the company is expected to announce a new storage appliance, which is best suited for archiving data for compliance purposes. The Sun StorageTek 5800, code-named Honeycomb, is a symmetric clustered appliance that features disaster recovery capability for replication. The 5800 fits in a 38U rack and consists of either eight or 16 storage nodes, two load balancing nodes and a Sun Fire X2100 server that acts as a service node.

In the 5800, both data and metadata are stored across the nodes. No dedicated metadata server exists and data is available as a single system image. Each node contains an AMD Opteron processor, memory and four 500GB Serial ATA drives. The 5800 runs Solaris. Pricing is not known.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.