Server Snapshots: Spotlight on Sun Microsystems

While HP and IBM seem to have established themselves as the big two in the server world, accounting for close to 65 percent of the market, Sun and Dell continue fighting it out for the third spot with around 10 percent market share each, according to the latest numbers from IDC (Framingham, Mass.). So it's no wonder Sun is going flat out on research, development and release of new products to strengthen its position.

Sun is duking it out with Dell for the No. 3 slot. Will the architectural advances it is bringing to its systems win customers over?

Since our previous snapshot in August 2007, Sun introduced dozens of new servers and dumped a handful. The new models are the Sun SPARC Enterprise T5120, T5220, T5140 and T5240 servers; Sun Blade T6320 server module; Sun Blade X8420; Netra X4200 M2; Sun SPARC Enterprise M9000, M8000, M5000 and M4000; Sun Streaming System; Sun Blade 6000; Sun Blade X6220 Module; Sun Blade X6250 Module; Sun Blade T6320 module; Sun Constellation System; Sun Blade 6048; Sun Blade X8440; Sun Fire X4450; Sun Fire X4150; Ultra 24 workstation; Sun Netra CP3260 ATCA blade (T2 chip); Sun Netra CP3220 ATCA blade (Opteron); and Sun DataCenter Switch 3456.

Reaching the end of their lives, on the other hand, were the Sun Fire V125, V215, V245, V445, V210, V240 and V440.

In terms of the really big changes, last October, Sun announced the world's first 64-thread, general-purpose systems. The UltraSPARC T2 "System on a Chip" processor powers the Sun SPARC Enterprise T5120 and T5220 servers, as well as the Sun Blade T6320 server module.

"These systems deliver the next big breakthrough in innovative system design with record-breaking performance, maximum energy and space efficiency, the industry's best performance per watt, and no cost virtualization technology," said Jimmy Huang, product line marketing manager for CoolThreads Servers at Sun Microsystems (Santa Clara, Calif.).

Sun followed that up in April with an announcement about the Sun SPARC Enterprise T5140 and T5240 servers. They are the first ever dual-socket chip-multithreading (CMT) systems based on the third-generation UltraSPARC T2 Plus processor.

"Sun's architectural advances set a new bar for performance, efficiency and economics in scaling web, enterprise, and HPC infrastructures," said Huang. "The results are up to 5 times the performance in half the space, and 2.5 times better performance per watt than comparable x86 systems."

He backs up that boast with some numbers. Sun SPARC Enterprise T5140 and T5240 servers offer up to 128 compute threads per server and 5,120 threads per rack. That makes the T5140, for example, 32 times more compute-dense than comparable x86 systems. T5140 is a 1 RU box. The T5240, he said, has up to 5 times higher performance, 2.5 times higher performance per watt, and two- to four-times higher memory and internal storage expandability in half the space than competing x86 systems. The 2-rack units of the T5240 can house up to 128 GB of memory and up to 16 internal disk drives. It also has integrated on-chip cryptographic acceleration and on-board 10-gigabit Ethernet for secure computing and high-speed networking, as well as open source, no extra cost virtualization technologies, with a choice of Solaris Containers and Logical Domains (LDoms).

Recent Server Snapshots
Penguin Computing

Sun sees such developments as an inevitable consequence of ongoing trends. Infrastructure load is growing 20 percent on average each year but can double or triple every few months with the launch of a major new service. Organizations around the world are struggling to build IT infrastructure for Web, enterprise, database and technical applications, to quickly and securely support this demand from a growing legion of users.

"At the same time, these organizations need to exploit the benefits of virtualizing their data centers to consolidate infrastructure, and to reduce power and space consumption, while driving up agility, asset utilization and service levels," said Arvie Martin, group marketing manager for x64 systems at Sun. "Growing energy consumption must be tackled to reduce costs and carbon footprint in an eco-conscious world where per-unit energy costs are increasing."

In keeping with those trends, Sun will begin rolling out quad-core processor support for its legacy and newer product lines this quarter. This doesn't necessarily mean organizations will have to change out servers to obtain the latest and greatest chips. Those that have invested in Sun's X2200 M2, X4100 M2, X4200 M2, X4600 M2 servers, for example, can upgrade to the new AMD quad-core processor without swapping servers.

Like the other big vendors, Sun plans to keep up with the chipmakers output of multicore processors as they hit the market.

"Sun will also continue to support the fastest processor speed bins and the fastest low-voltage, energy-efficient processors from Intel and AMD as they become available," said Martin.

x86 vs. Unix

Interestingly, Sun appears to have widened its market appeal. Although previously heavy-duty Unix servers were its bread and butter, Sun appears to have made significant headway in expanding into the x86 space, particularly at the higher end of this market.

"We continue to see strong demand, quarter over quarter, for our x86 4-socket and above systems," said Martin. "Growth from Q2FY08 to Q3FY08 was just under 40 percent."

He expects this trend to continue now that the company has announced the Sun Fire X4440. Sun expects to begin shipping the 4-socket AMD-based server in volume this quarter.

On the Unix side, though, Sun is having to compete more than ever with IBM and HP. Gabriel Consulting Group (Beaverton, Ore.), recently surveyed IT staff in 290 data centers. Respondents viewed the Unix server market as an almost dead heat between IBM and HP, narrowly favoring IBM over HP. Sun Microsystems placed third.

"While Sun finished a reasonably close third in the Vendor-Face Off section of our survey, they topped HP and IBM on several other important survey categories, including energy efficiency and customer loyalty questions," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting.

Sun Microsystems' Servers at a Glance

Entry-Level Servers
CoolThreads Servers
Midrange Servers
High-End Servers
Carrier-Grade Servers
Target Deployments Application development; EDA; security; portal server; Web server; application server; storage server; database, application consolidation, OLTP, CRM, ERP, DNS, HTTP, and FTP services; and Internet gateway Web server; virtualization and consolidation; OLTP databases; security applications; Java Application Servers; OLTP databases; ERP; CRM; SCM; network infrastructures; SOA and business integration platforms; multithreaded floating point applications; and multithreaded HPC workloads Server consolidation and virtualization; eco-computing; 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 collaboration Virtualization and server consolidation, eco-computing; 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, management, network infrastructure, VoIP, softswitch, military, embedded applications, ruggedized and OEM environments
Processor Type UltraSPARC T1, T2 and T2 Plus, and AMD Opteron UltraSPARC T1, T2 and T2 Plus UltraSPARC IV+, III, dual-core SPARC VI and dual-core AMD Opteron UltraSPARC IV+ and dual-core SPARC64 VI UltraSPARC IIi, III and IIIi
Operating System Solaris 10, Red Hat Linux, SUSE Linux, Windows and VMware (on x64 systems) Solaris 10 and Linux Solaris 8, 9 and 10, Linux, Windows, and VMware Solaris 8, 9 and 10 Solaris 8, 9 and 10
Servers Sun SPARC Enterprise
Sun Fire (SPARC)
Sun Blade (Opteron)
Sun Blade (Intel) X6250
Sun Fire (Opteron)
X4600 M2
X4200 M2
X4100 M2
X2100 M2
Sun Fire
Sun SPARC Enterprise
Sun Blade
Netra CP3060 Blade
Netra CP3260 Blade
Netra T2000 Server
Netra T5220 Server
Sun Fire
Netra 1280
SPARC Enterprise
Sun Blade
Sun Fire
Netra Processor Blades
Netra Servers
Price Range From $945 From $2,795 Sun Fire V490 starts at $19,995; Sun Fire E6900 starts at $241,490 SPARC Enterprise M4000 servers starts at $34,500 to SPARC Enterprise M5000, which starts at $47,000. Priced individually based on customer configuration SPARC Enterprise servers are available from $290,690. From $3,395; chassis at $4,995; 8-way server module from $14,600

This article was originally published on May 9, 2008
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