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Sun to put x86, faster SPARCs in blades

And some clever GRID stuff, too

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Sun is looking to make blades based on x86-compatible processors in addition to faster embedded when the servers launch later this year. The company told us that x86 would be an option alongside SPARC, but wouldn't comment on any specifics of the latter.

According to reliable sources familiar with the project, a faster version of the UltraSPARC IIe processor will form the core of the Sun blade. Clocked at 650Mhz and 700Mhz, the faster IIe, like its lower frequency predecessors, includes the memory controller and PCI on the chip.

Sun plans to wring more speed out of the two-year old IIe, with frequencies topping out at 1.1Ghz before it's eventually superseded by the IIIe. But that's a couple of years out.

The IIe currently tops out at 450Mhz, according to this now rather dog-eared webpage. A couple of moths flew out when we opened the page earlier, indicating that this embedded portion of Sun's roadmap is long overdue for a revamp, although a spokesman for Sun's microprocessor division declined to say how.

Sun has already stated publicly that it is aiming for 16 blades in a 3U box. We understand that two Gigabit Ethernet controllers will manage traffic, and the blades themselves will feature mobile IDE drives and 100MB Ethernet.

Ashley Eikenberry, group manager for Blade product marketing, said that the "intelligent shell" formed a key part of the first wave of Sun blades due this year. In the future switches based on Infiniband would form a much more important role, she added.

"In the first wave we'll have the compute blade and some storage on the blade … but mostly storage is something you'll interface to. But further down the line we do see a further decomposition of I/O storage and the compute elements."

She wouldn't comment on any processor details, but current word is that the faster IIe based blades will consumer under 40W of power. (Today's desktop PCs require 400W and higher power supplies).

But Chris Hipp, founder of RLX Technologies, told us that if accurate, 40W was still more expensive than RLX's offerings.

"Under full load our 800Mhz Intel blade consumes 30W, with two disk drives and 1GB of memory. The Transmeta blade consumes 16W with 512MB of memory, and when it's idle scales down to 7W. Normal web load it's 10W," he told us.

Starting grid

Presentations given by Sun executives emphasize the company's ambitious plans for the blades, which have so far been pitched by vendors at service providers and web services. Sun's blades will be pitched at distributed and parallel scientific computing environments, such as gene splicing.

Eikenberry said that the Blade team had been working "very closely" with the Grid development group within Sun.

That's pretty important to Sun in differentiating its Blades, but even more so in that it helps justify the long-term investment in SPARC microprocessor development. Sun's pitch is that it offers binary compatibility across the board: so your production platform is your development platform. But a commodity application - a bind, say - doesn't really care where it runs. So by encouraging new and sophisticated applications, it keeps the SPARC team busy.

Scientific computing could become a more significant market for blades, Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff told us. By contrast, HP appears to be shunting its heavyweight blades to the telco space.

"The big guys are all making half-assed stabs at blades because they have legacy products to protect," Hipp said. "It's the very nature of selling something that cannibalizes their high end products. Blades are a very disruptive technology."

Sun says we should not expect any announcement at next week's Blade Summit in San Jose, but product is still on course to ship in 2H02. ®

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