Hardware Today: Sun Server Snapshot

by Drew Robb

New chips and servers have made for a busy few months for Sun.

Sun Microsystems has been busy the past few months. In its x86 server line (which Sun calls x64 to indicate it uses only 64-bit processors), the company has introduced the Galaxy server to be more competitive in the lower end of the market and embraced dual-core processors. In the SPARC category, it recently introduced high-performance, energy efficient T1 UltraSPARC CoolThreads processors along with several new Sun Fire servers. And these machines go way beyond mere dual core.

"The Sun UltraSPARC T1 microprocessor is the first on the market with eight cores," says Fadi Azhari, director of outbound marketing at Sun. "Each core has four threads, for a total of 32 threads working simultaneously."


While other OEMs are phasing out their RISC-based chips, Sun is investing more in R&D than ever. In September, it came out with a new line of UltraSPARC IV+-based servers for the midrange and high end. These processors are available on models such as the Sun Fire V490 to the Sun Fire E25K.

In November, Sun announced the UltraSPARC T1 processor, formerly code-named Niagara. Its eight cores and 32 threads enable many tasks to be simultaneously performed in parallel. The chip also saves energy while increasing system throughput. It employs Sun's CMT processor architecture to keep pace with the multithreaded application environment of the Internet. Each core runs at 1.2 GHz for an aggregate of 9.6 GHz.

Recent Server Snapshots
HPC Market

"This represents five times the performance compared to Xeon or POWER," says Azhari, "plus one fifth of the power consumption, and about a quarter of the space."

The latest iteration of the UltraSPARC chip features patented CoolThreads chip multithreading technology that leverages the threaded nature of the Solaris 10 operating system. Most processors use 150 watts, but a CoolThreads processor uses 70 watts. On a T1, that means 32 threads use 70 watts, compared to a 110-watt Xeon processor with two threads or a 150-watt POWER processor with four threads.

"The world is going to threading, and the T1's two watts per thread is hard to beat," says Adhari. "The chip design also minimizes the time it takes for data to move from memory to the CPU."

Several years ago, Sun decided to redesign the RISC core from scratch. It now includes four dedicated memory controllers for its eight cores, and each core has dedicated memory access. Other chip vendors, however, have largely remained with a unified memory controller and stuck to their established core architectures. Thus, although Intel is now in the midst of a revamp, it might be two years before a different core design hits the market.

At last week's quarterly networking event, Sun unveiled two servers that the T1 processor powers. The Sun Fire T1000 is a possible solution to server sprawl. It is well-suited to be a Web server, a directory server, or a portal server, as well as any other transaction-intensive box that can take advantage of its highly threaded nature. The T1000 is a 1U rackmount machine. Pricing begins at $2,995. The Sun Fire T2000 is a 2U rackmount version of the T1000 that starts at $7,795.

64-Bit Sun

The big news for Sun x64 has been its Galaxy server launch. This includes the Sun Fire X2100, a low-end 1U rackmount model priced from $745. Like its recent SPARC upgrades, Sun feels the chips in its Galaxy servers are superior to Intel-based alternatives, although this time Sun is talking about AMD Opteron processors.

"Opteron chips are much better than Intel Xeon," says Graham Lovell, senior director x64 servers.

Another fairly new Galaxy machine is the 1U Sun Fire X4100. This is a 2-processor (4-way with dual core) server that starts at $2,145. It has been designed to properly channel the airflow across key internal components. This is necessary to contain the heat output of the AMD chips because of its faster clocking speeds. Lovell says this architecture enables Sun to use the latest AMD chips about three months ahead of other OEMs. Sun has been using the Opteron 285 SE chip.

"This chip gives us a 200 MHz advantage compared to the competition," says Lovell.

He compares this Sun 4-way server to a Dell 6850 using a Xeon processor and describes the Sun box as being a quarter the size, with a third of the power consumption, at half the price.

Sun is also doing well with its transition to dual core. In the eight months since it introduced its first dual-core model, the company estimates more than one-third of all x64 servers shipped are dual core. In the high-performance and technical markets, however, that number is running above the 40-percent mark.

"We have experienced a phenomenal uptake of dual core," says Lovell. "Within a year, two-thirds or more of our servers will be using this technology."

In addition to dual core, Sun is experiencing greater uptake of Solaris on the x64 platform. According to Lovell, more than one in five x64 servers users utilizes Solaris, as the cost of deploying it is less than Linux and offers more features.

Who buys these x64 servers? Lovell says they are popular with the financial services sector, in a high-performance Web services setting and, in particular, in a grid environment operating on a cooperative load.

With such strong interest from the grid community, the company has introduced the Sun Grid Rack System. This enables multiple servers to be configured into pods. If a grid customer, for example, needs a pod consisting of three racks of servers, Sun will assemble it, connect up the cables, add the storage components and build a complete system. Everything is preconfigured and pretested, so all the customer has to do is plug it in. As a result, mistakes are minimized, and the grid is online within a day or so. The do-it-yourself approach, on the other hand, can take several weeks.

Multicore Sun

In the first half of next year, Sun plans to augment its x64 line with a new 16-way model. This will be an 8-socket (16-way with dual core) Sun Fire server. Meanwhile, the company plans to continue to roll out multicore chips on the UltraSPARC platform ahead of the competition.

As covered above, the T1 chip now has eight cores. But that is far from the end of the line for Sun's multicore products. It is currently working on the Rock chip for high-end processors in big machines. Although details are sketchy, Rock is said to be suitable for either single-threaded or multithreaded applications, and it should be out some time in 2008.

"Even high-end systems such as Oracle will eventually go multicore," says Azhari.

Sun Servers at a Glance

 Entry-Level ServersSun Fire T1 UltraSPARC CoolThreads ServersMidrange Servers High-End Servers Carrier-Grade Blade ServersCarrier-Grade Netra Rack Servers
Target DeploymentsApplication development; EDA; security; portal server; Web server; application server; database, application consolidation, OLTP, CRM, ERP, DNS, HTTP, and FTP services; and Internet gatewayWeb Server, identity or directory server, portal server, application integration, index, search, edge or network node; Java application servers; enterprise application servers (ERP and CRM); and Web tier consolidationServer consolidation; application serving; BIDW (database, decision support, and datamart); business processing (ERP, CRM, OLTP, and batch); IT Infrastructure (directory servers, systems, and network management); application development; scientific engineering; and collaborationServer 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 systemsTelecom applications: high-availability and reliability telecom applications, including wireless, 3G, signaling, operations, and managementTelecom applications: Network infrastructure, VoIP, softswitch, 3G networks, military, and embedded applications — ruggedized and OEM environments
Processor TypeUltraSPARC IIi, IIIi, and AMD OpteronUltraSPARC T1UltraSPARC IV+, III, and dual-core AMD OpteronUltraSPARC IV+UltraSPARC IIiUltraSPARC IIi, III, and IIIi
Operating SystemSolaris 8, 9, and 10 (on SPARC); Solaris 9 and 10, Red Hat, SUSE, Windows, and VMware (on x64 systems)Solaris 10Solaris 8, 9, and 10, Linux, Windows, and VMwareSolaris 8, 9, and 10Solaris 8, 9, and 10Solaris 8, 9, and 10
ServersSun Fire (Opteron)

Sun Fire (SPARC)

Sun Grid Rack System
Sun Fire
V40z dual core Opteron
Netra 1280
Sun Fire
Netra Processor Blades
CP 2140 (cPCI)
CP 2160 (cPCI)
CP 2300 (cPSB)
Netra Servers
CT 410 (cPCI)
CT 810, (cPCI)
CT 820 (cPSB)
Price RangeSun Fire X2100, starting at $745, to Sun Fire V440, starting at $13,995Sun Fire T1000, starting at $2,995, to T2000, starting at $7,795Sun fire V480, starting at $19,995, to Sun Fire E6900, starting at $241,490Priced individually based on customer configurationPriced individually based on customer configurations;
Netra CP 2140 from $3,495 to $8,995;
Netra CP 2160 from $4,395 to $6,995;
Netra CP 2300 from $1,995 to $6,345
Priced individually based on customer configurations;
Netra 120 starts at $3,395;
Netra 1280 starts at $69,995

This article was originally published on Tuesday Dec 13th 2005
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