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Sun Microsystems Hits Midrange Market Segment

By Bob Liu (Send Email)
Posted Mar 21, 2001


Sun Microsystems Inc. Wednesday unveiled its long-awaited line of midrange servers, which carries forward the Sun Fire brand, in what the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has been touting for the last month as one of the largest technology unveilings in its history.

Although the so-called "midframe" line is intended to complement its top-end line of 64-processor E10000 products (as well as the successor StarCat), the Sun Fire product line quickly bridges the gap between servers and traditional mainframes in both computing performance and price -- quite a contrast to the Sun Fire 280R server announced last fall. As such, CTOs and CIOs have another weapon at their disposal to scale up their corporate networks in the most cost-efficient manner. With new servers, Sun hopes to simplify scalability, but are we ready for greater computing performance?

The product line consists of the Sun Fire 3800, 4800 server, Sun Fire 4810 rackable server and the high-end Sun Fire 6800. It ranges in price from $75,000 to $500,000 depending on the configuration. The line has the capacity for up to 24 processors and is based on the UltraSPARC III processor, Sun's third-generation 64-bit chip. It, of course, operates on the Solaris 8 environment. (You, perhaps, expected NT?!?)

"It's more bad news for the competition," Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems chairman and CEO, said in a prepared statement.

Ironically, not all competitors considered Sun's announcement to be such bad news. Because of the ever-increasing need for more and more database applications, Sun's move to higher-end, higher-performance computing appears to be a logical step in the right direction. That, along with the marketing prowess of Sun behind the push into high performance computing, should empower the developer community to get the maximum performance out of those high-end machines, according to one engineer at Unisys.

"There are not too many applications around that can scale that much [along with the infrastructure build-up]," said Martin Wenger, systems consultant in Unisys's Technology Services. "Only a few applications can take advantage of processor power like [Microsoft's} SQL Server."

It should be noted, however, that Unisys ES7000 servers (priced between $200,000 and $800,000 for up to 32 processors) run on the Unix and Microsoft Windows environments, not Solaris. It should also be noted that, to coincide with the product launch, Sun declared a new performance record of 16,016 concurrent users, with an average response time of 1.011 seconds on the new Sun Fire(TM) 6800 server using the Oracle Applications Standard Benchmark.

To be sure, Wenger still brings up the valid issue that the performance of any hardware greatly depends on the applications that are designed to run on it.

"We believe that we [Unisys] have the right hardware and technology to continue making steps forward into the enterprise environment" despite the current U.S. economic slowdown. "Now it's up to the application developers to tune their applications to get the maximum performance out of systems that we have."

To enhance performance, Sun did build an innovative feature into the new Sun Fire servers. With the so-called "Sun Fireplane interconnection" or backplane, administrators can partition the full production environment into separate domains to improve on things like fault tolerance and uptime.

Although Sun claims this feature is new to this class of system, it is remarkably similar to Unisys's so-called "affinity groups" on its Cellular Multiprocessing (CMP) architecture, which allows an administrator to dynamically allocate processing power based on the enterprise's needs.

At the heart of Sun's product introduction is its plan to fight off aggressive competitors like Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and even Intel Corp. from regaining a foothold in the high-end server market. Sun still plans to fortify its product offerings on the high end with a successor to the E10000; however, competitors also plan to follow suit.

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