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Sun embraces x86 in Linux overture

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Pragmatism has trumped pride at Sun Microsystems: the company will expand its Intel-based Cobalt line at the low-end to win back some of the business currently being lost to white box and Dell x86 servers.

That was the most dramatic of nine announcements from Sun this morning, declaring that it is embracing Linux. Not all of these are new. Sun will expand support and services for Linux for the Sun.ONE marketecture, ship its own brand Linux distro, improve Linux compatibility on Solaris and increase investment in SPARC-native versions of Linux including a new port of Lineo's embedded Linux for SPARC chips.

But it's the expansion of its own x86 line that caught most analysts attention.

The Cobalt line will go multi-processor, and will appear in more configurations beyond today's Qube and current 1u rack. So Sun can no longer present the simple pyramid slide with one chip (SPARC) and one OS (Solaris) it uses to highlights the difference between itself and IBM (lots of proprietary operating systems) and HP (in which printer ink is the biggest element).

However in the best pugilistic Sun tradition, the company came out swinging:-

"We sell lots of 1Us and 2US, we sell an UltraSPARC starting at $995 and we bet you we make more money on those than Dell does, and we don't pay the tax to Microsoft," said COO Ed Zander. "We're trying to unite the UNIX™ world," he added.

The Microsoft reference is really a red herring: Microsoft barely makes an impact on the $999 caching and httpd edge server business that Sun wants to reclaim. When Dell sells one of these racks, it's invariably a Linux system.

The Cobalt range, acquired a year ago, starts at $1,149, which allows Sun to boast that it sells a real SPARC computer for less than an x86 appliance.

But classic economies of scale dictate that the x86 will always have the edge in price/performance at the very low end.

Sun executives tried to differentiate between the two. Jonathan Schwartz, who looks after the Liberty Alliance (that's the single-sign on initiative, not the Jerry Falwell Ministry) explained the new positioning like this:-

"The Number One application for those [appliance] devices is just Apache with maybe JSP," he said. All you care about is running 3,000 at a time. Those guys are not going to be programming at the edge of the network," said Schwartz.

Which is fine. Except at the same time, Sun says that the Linux Cobalts will be multiprocessor boxes, and will be plushed out with the full Sun.ONE platform ,too. Which makes them sound like really rather attractive development platforms to us. So in this case, he can't really have its cake and eat it.

Sun wouldn't elaborate on which distro(s) would form the base for its own-brand offering, although the press material cites SuSE as an example.

Sun continues to work away at its own low-end SPARCs. The Jalapeno processor, the high performance UltraSPARC IIIi received another airing at the ISSCC conference in San Francisco yesterday, although this targetted more at the 2x and 4x Xeons than the bargain-basement, sub-$1000 racks cited today. There's no news on when exactly Jalapeno will appear: the latest word to reach us hints that engineers are still squishing bugs in the JBus interface chipset. ®

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