Sun Unveils Next Niagara Servers

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Sun Microsystems is set to unveil the second piece of its multithreaded, multicore Niagara chip strategy Tuesday, this time featuring the first servers to be powered by the new processor. However, while the Sun Fire T2000 server will be immediately available for purchase, its smaller sibling, the Sun Fire T1000, isn't expected to ship until March.

Low-Power Chips

In November, Sun officially released the UltraSparc T1 chip, formerly code-named Niagara, and extolled its low power consumption of around 70 watts compared to rival systems offered by Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.

The UltraSparc T1 processor, which incorporates Sun's patented CoolThreads multithreading technology, is available in four-, six- and eight-core implementations. Sun is insisting on giving the Niagara-powered servers a 9.6GHz clock speed, a reference to the eight-core implementation with each core running at a clock speed of 1.2GHz. The eight-core implementation is able to process 32 different tasks simultaneously, since each core can handle four software threads, according to Anil Gadre, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Sun.

"This is a company-defining launch," Gadre said in a recent phone interview. As well as its user base of Sparc customers, Sun is also hoping to target users of servers based on x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

"Just as Linux changed people's minds about Windows, Niagara could do the same thing to the x86 industry," Gadre said. Sun, of course, plays in the x86 arena with its AMD Opteron-powered Galaxy and other x86 servers, but Gadre said he wasn't concerned about the possibility of Niagara machines cannibalizing other Sun server business.

Critical Effort

"There's a lot at stake here [for Sun]," Vernon Turner, group vice president and general manager of IDC's Enterprise Computing group, said in a phone interview Monday. He drew an analogy with Sun's earlier transition from being a pure workstation player into also selling enterprise-level servers. If Sun gets the strategy right with Niagara, the company ensures its longevity for some years to come, but should its strategy fail, Sun could face some serious problems sooner rather than later.

That said, Sun has "thrown down the gauntlet" with its six-core and eight-core Niagara servers since, some boutique sellers aside, major players have yet to offer such multicore systems, according to Turner. "It's a new paradigm for IT customers to investigate."

Sun is set to unveil the Niagara servers at its quarterly product launch simultaneously in New York and London on Tuesday. While Sun Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy will be the master of ceremonies at the U.S. launch, Jonathan Schwartz, the company's president and chief operating officer, is to host the U.K. event.

"We've never done this scale of a launch before," Gadre said, adding that similar Niagara events would take place in 25 cities worldwide over three days.

Galaxy Paved Way

Sun claims to have learned from the lessons of its last major hardware launch, the release of its Galaxy servers, the Sun Fire X2100, X4100, and X4200, which it first announced in September. At the beginning of November, the company admitted that the servers were still not shipping in volume. Gadre claims those issues have been resolved, though that's not reflected on Sun's Web site where customers looking to find out when the X4100 and X4200 will be delivered are still advised to "call Sun" for information. By contrast, the X2100 ships within "six business days," according to the Sun site.

"Galaxy is picking up steam," Gadre said, adding that on a recent Sun conference call he was assured by a fellow company executive that the servers are shipping in volume.

With Niagara, Sun has ensured that significant numbers of both customers and ISVs (independent software vendors) have had early access to the servers, according to Gadre. "We learned from Galaxy, frankly," he said. "We've got to be ready to go in relatively large volumes. Niagara is already shipping way ahead of what Galaxy was at this point. We've got the pump primed."

"Adoption is based on availability" in the market Sun is targeting with its Niagara servers, according to IDC's Turner. "There's the notion that the best profits are to be made early on."

The more than 100 customers who have beta tested the Niagara systems include long-time Sun user online auction house eBay, IT services company Electronic Data Systems (EDS), Air France, Japanese system integrator NTT Data, and German banking systems integrator Fiducia, according to Gadre. Among the 100 or so ISVs that have been using the servers are BEA Systems, Oracle, and Symantec, he said. The 100 ISVs represent an increase of ten times the number of companies that tested the Galaxy servers, Gadre added.

Pricing and Specs

Sun plans to launch a "very large Try and Buy program" for the new servers as soon as next week, Gadre said. The program would allow customers and ISVs to test a Sun Fire T1000 or T2000 for free for 90 days with the option to purchase the system at the end of that period.

Pricing for the Sun Fire T1000 starts from $2995, while the Sun Fire T2000 costs from $7795. The T1000 is a 1U, 19-inch deep server for use in Web and network infrastructures, while the T2000 is a 2U, 24.3-inch deep server designed to handle application services and Web-tier consolidation. U is the standard unit for measuring the space between shelves on a server rack where 1U equals 1.75 inches.

Gadre dismissed analysts' concerns about how much work third-party application developers may have to make their software run fully optimized on the new servers. "That's completely wrong," he said. "Binary compatibility really works" so that applications from the likes of CA, MySQL, SAP, and Sybase run as is.

While Tuesday's launch is mostly focused on the Niagara hardware, Gadre pointed to two other areas he feared might "probably get lost in the mix." Sun will talk about its Sun Studio 11 compiler and performance analysis tools and announce a new support plan around the Niagara servers. "This is a change in the way we offer services," Gadre said. "We're moving to be more like car companies where the first four years [service] includes tire rotation and oil changes." The Full Protection Plan will give customers three years of integrated hardware and Solaris operating system support.

Gadre positioned Tuesday's launch as the last in a year-long effort from Sun to completely reinvent its product line starting with the company's Solaris 10 operating system through its Java Enterprise System middleware and its Galaxy servers culminating in the Niagara machines.

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