Sun touts Opteron over Itanic

But why is Sun's support for the procesor so lukewarm?

Sun continues to fete AMD's Opteron, even though it has yet to formally announce support for the 64-bit processor.

John Loiacono, VP of Sun's operating platforms group, interviewed this week by eWeek, said that the server maker is evaluating AMD's offering, which is due to be launched later this month - the 22nd to be precise.

Sun's interest in Opteron, he says, is fuelled by customers and ISVs lauding Opteron's superior backward compatibility with 32-bit apps, particularly in relation to Itanic's 32-bit support.

"We are not seeing or hearing anything from our customers and ISVs that indicates they want or need Itanium. But we are seeing interest for the upcoming Opteron processor family, essentially because it has [32-bit] compatibility, which Itanium doesn't," Loiacono told eWeek.

"[Intel] talks about 'compatibility mode', but everything we've seen so far and every ISV we've talked to about compatibility mode has said there's a huge overhead associated with that, it's running at less than acceptable performance," he added.

So why not back Opteron more fully, John?

Sun is keen on the chip. Ten months ago, Sun UK Server Product Manager Matthew Keep told us of the "close co-operation" between AMD and Sun, and the value Sun places on Opteron as a bridge to the 64-bit world that Sun dominates from the 32-bit server world Intel dominates.

Yet Loiacono has committed Sun in the same eWeek interview to shipping entry-level uni- and dual-processor servers based on Intel Xeon and Pentium 4 processors "in the very near future".

Sun isn't daft - it knows there's a very large market for commodity servers, machines typically based on Intel 32-bit CPUs. What matters is getting Sun-branded systems into that market rather than boxes labelled Dell or HP, and if that means leaping into the x86 server market, so be it. Indeed, last summer Sun dipped a toe in the water with its LX50 Pentium III-based server.

One good reason for selecting Opteron is that, since Intel is challenging Sun at the high end, it makes sense to partner with Intel's chief rival at the low end. As we've seen, Opteron also serves as a teaser to 64-bit apps. First get customers to shift to 64-bit x86 apps, and then sell them a vision of better 64-bit performance through a 'pure' 64-bit platform, like... well... UltraSPARC.

Why not partner with AMD then? Sun may yet do so, but Opteron remains an unproven platform, whereas Xeon and Pentium 4 are now well-established. And like it or not, the Intel brand carries a weight that AMD doesn't. Opteron may change that, but it's not going to happen overnight, if it happens at all.

So perhaps Sun sees Opteron more as a foil for Itanium, allowing it to quietly maintain UltraSPARC at the mid- to high-end and to establish a stronger presence in the 32-bit market, all while the industry focuses on an Itanic vs. Opteron battle. If that's the case Sun views AMD not as a partner but as a valuable decoy from its own challenges. ®

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