Hardware Today: Sun Microsystems Server Snapshot

by Drew Robb

The No. 3 server vendor is working hard to keep its server lines fresh as it surfs the crest of the server technology wave.

For all the publicity about how rocky the past few years have been for Sun, it continues to occupy a position that is the envy of many tech companies. According to IDC, Sun consistently brings in $5 billion dollars in server hardware sales each year, and its 10.5 percent market share make it the No. 3 server vendor in the world.

Recent Server Snapshots
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"Sun had a 25.3 percent increase in Q4 in Unix server revenue and an increase in shipment volume," said IDC Analyst Jean Bozman. "Ever since the HP/Compaq merger, Sun has essentially held firm as number three, behind IBM and HP."

Although its revenue is slightly down, Sun now ships more units than ever. Bozman attributes this to Sun placing additional emphasis on servers in the sub-$25,000 range, while continuing to sell well in the mid- and high-range. Part of Sun's strategy, she says, to broaden its customer base by widening its product range.

This article looks at recent developments in Sun's key product lines as well as what to expect in the future. The table below provides a high-level overview of Sun's server lines and products.

Sun's Servers, at a Glance

Server TypeEntry-Level Servers
Midrange Servers
High-End Servers
Carrier-Grade Blade Servers
Carrier-Grade Netra Rack Servers
Target DeploymentsApplication development; EDA; security; portal server; Web server; database, OLTP, CRM, ERP, DNS, HTTP, and FTP services; and Internet Gateway Server consolidation, application serving, BIDW (database, decision support, and datamart), business processing (ERP, CRM, OLTP, and batch), IT Infrastructure (directory servers, systems and network management), applications development, scientific engineering, and collaboration Server consolidation, BIDW (database, decision support, and datamart), business processing (ERP, CRM, OLTP, and batch), IT infrastructure (directory servers, systems and network management), high performance technical computing, and decision support systems Telecom applications: high-availability and reliability telecom applications including wireless, 3G, signaling, operations, and management Telecom applications: Network infrastructure, VoIP, softswitch, 3G networks, military, and embedded applications — ruggedized and OEM environments
Processor Type UltraSPARC IIi and IIIi UltraSPARC IV, III, and dual-core AMD Opteron UltraSPARC IV UltraSPARC IIi UltraSPARC IIi, III, and IIIi
Operating System Solaris 8, 9, and 10 Solaris 8, 9, and 10, Linux and Windows Solaris 8, 9, and 10 Solaris 8, 9, and 10 Solaris 8, 9, and 10
Servers Sun Fire (SPARC)
V100, V120, V210, V240, and V440;
Sun Fire (x86)
Sun Grid Rack System
Sun Fire
V490, V890, E2900, E4900, and E6900;
V480, and V880 , V1280;
Netra 1280
Sun Fire
E20K and E25K
Netra Processor Blades
CP 2140 (cPCI), CP 2160 (cPCI), and CP 2300 (cPSB)
Netra Servers
CT 410 (cPCI), CT 810, (cPCI), CT 820 (cPSB), 120, 240, 440, and 1280
Price Range$995 (Sun Fire V100) to $40,995 (Sun Fire V440)$6,995 (Sun Fire V40z) to $173,490 (Sun Fire E6900)Contact Sun$21,195 (Netra CT 410) to $32,995 (Netra CT 820)$3,395 (Netra 120) to $69,995 (Netra 1280)

Dispensing With Intel

Sun's x86 line is called x64, as it offers only 64-bit AMD Opteron-based systems. The company stopped using Intel Xeon chips earlier this year.

"We are getting much better price/performance and better performance from AMD Opteron," said Graham Lovell, senior director of x64 servers, Network Systems Group at Sun. "The Opteron is well-ahead in terms of dual-core technology, is easy to replace, and runs a lot cooler than the Xeon."

Lovell expects to see the market shift solely to 64-bit processors in the near future. As the next generation of applications and operating systems evolves, he believes customers will stop buying 32-bit servers completely.

Accordingly, Sun is in the midst of rolling out dual-core AMD Opteron-based servers for its entire x64 product line. By the end of May, the Sun Fire V40z dual-core server will be released. This is an enhanced 4-socket, 8-way server that integrates four microprocessors — each with two CPU cores. Sun claims this architecture can achieve twice the performance and power efficiency of Intel-preocessor-based x64 single-core server offerings.

"When you compare 2.2 GHz single vs. dual-core systems, you can achieve more than twice performance in certain circumstances," says Lovell. "When you compare 2.2 GHz dual core to a 2.6 GHz single, you get a 1.5 to 1.7X improvement."

In addition, Lovell says that compared Xeon MP equivalent servers, dual-core versions consume up to 60 percent less rack and floor space; require 50 percent less memory, disk space, I/O capacity, and cooling; and cost 50 percent less per node to manage. The Sun Fire V40z, for example, uses 42 percent of the power needed to support the same number of processor cores in Xeon-based servers.

Sun also plans to release a dual-core version of its Sun Fire V20z server this summer.

"We are seeing high customer demand for dual-core processors," says Lovell. "Before, they went for the highest performance chip version minus 1. Now, they are more interested in the highest speed dual-core servers."

>> With an Eye to the Future

Low-End Solaris

Solaris made its name on the Unix platform running SPARC-based processors. As part of its strategy to widen market penetration, Sun is now offering Solaris for its x64 servers. Solaris 10 is, after all, the third release of the operating system that supports multi-core systems. With this release, Sun brings to x64 multi-core systems enterprise-class technologies, such as Solaris Containers, Predictive Self Healing, and Dynamic Tracing (DTrace). For example, Predictive Self-Healing automatically detects failing cores, which can then be taken offline without affecting application availability, and Containers divide up a system into multiple virtual environments in which the application can run.

"This is a flexible way to get the most out of hardware," says Lovell. "It offers higher throughput, as it bypasses the need for lot of unnecessary processing."

In addition to supporting Solaris, Sun hardware also runs Windows, Linux, and several other operating systems. Linux, says Lovell, is currently one of the most popular options. One emerging trend he's been seeing is that enterprises are increasingly bypassing the server-bundled operating system route are instead purchasing their operating system from Red Hat or Windows and then finding a hardware supplier certified to run that operating system.

Another trend Lovell sees is that while Linux contributes to volume shipments at the low end, Solaris is now the x84 performance king.

"One year ago, we could get the best performance on benchmark tests out of Linux," says Lovell. "Now, all our latest benchmark wins have been on x64/Solaris, as that operating system is optimized for AMD 64."

The Vital SPARC

While Sun is investing major effort into making its Opteron line a winner, its SPARC-based processor servers are still the primary breadwinner. This past year, Sun has been steadily upgrading the line with Solaris 10 UltraSPARC IV machines, including the Sun FireV490, V890, E2900, E4900, E6900, E20K, and E25K servers.

The UltraSPARC IV is a 1.35 GHz processor that offers two-times the throughput at 34-percent better price/performance than the fastest UltraSPARC III systems, said Fadi Azhari, group marketing manager, Scalable Systems Group at Sun. These UltraSPARC IV and Solaris-based systems deliver Chip Multithreading Technology (CMT), which Azhari says doubles the application throughput and provides 34 percent better price/performance in the same physical footprint as its predecessors. Sun plans to release an UltraSPARC IV plus server with added clock speed and memory in the second half of this year.

"As a result of these improvements, we are experiencing greater demand among our mid- and low-end SPARC models," says Azhari. "We are also seeing health migration rates by existing customers to our newest servers."

In addition, Sun gave a speed bump to the Netra 440, a Solaris-, UltraSPARC-processor-based 4-way carrier-grade server for the telecommunications market. It is NEBS (Network Equipment Building Systems) Level-3 certified and now available at 1.6 GHz.

Rock and Roll

What does the future hold? Will the Sun come out tomorrow? Sun's R&D department is working hard on two new chip designs. Its Niagara chip, Azhari said, is based on radical CMT technology that aims to increase throughput by multithreading each core. It is due out in early 2006.

"The Niagara will give us 15 times the processor throughput," says Azhari. "It will be available in up to eight cores in one processor socket with four threads in each core."

Further up the line, circa 2008, Sun plans to release a high-end version of Niagara, known as Rock.

This article was originally published on Monday May 9th 2005
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