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Sun bets future on US IV and Opteron boxes

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Later today, Sun Microsystems will lay the groundwork for its next two years in the server market, unveiling new UltraSPARC IV-based and Opteron-based servers.

With the product launch Sun is touching on something old and something new. The UltraSPARC IV chip is a dual core version of the UltraSPARC III chip already shipping in Sun's Unix servers. The UltraSPARC-based systems provide the vast majority of Sun's revenue and an improved chip should be welcomed with open arms by customers. By contrast, the Opteron-based kit marks a new move by Sun to attack the x86 market with a bit more force than rivals. Sun was late to the market with Xeon-based servers but has pledged to lead server makers with systems based on AMD's 64-bit Opteron chip.

The new systems could not come at a more crucial time for Sun. Over the past two years, analysts have assaulted the company for not improving overall sales and for not posting profits. At present, however, there are signs that IT spending is one the rise, particularly in Sun's key telco and financial services markets. Sun needs to prove it can capture a large chunk of this spending with the fresh gear.

"Technology spending is starting to get a little better, so it's a good time to introduce a new product line," said Steve Campbell, vice president of marketing at Sun.

Sun has some challenges to overcome with the UltraSPARC IV-based servers. Analysts often say the UltraSPARC line is not performing as well as it used to with IBM's Power 4, in particular, pointed to as serious competition. But with the new dual core chip, Sun will show a solid performance boost at minimal disruption to customers.

Sun users can upgrade their existing systems on-the-fly, replacing UltraSPARC III boards with the new UltraSPARC IV boards. Sun's midrange and high-end servers can support a mix of both the old and new chips and have processors running at different speeds.

With the dual cores, the UltraSPARC IV essentially provides close to the twice the performance of its predecessor, while systems based on the chip will cost only 30 percent more. At launch, the chip will run at 1.05GHz and 1.2GHz. Sun now joins IBM and HP with a dual core chip. HP conveniently launched the dual core PA8800 yesterday.

The first UltraSPARC IV-based server will not actually arrive until next month. At that time, customers will be able to buy the 12 processor Sun Fire E4900 - follow on to the Sun Fire 4800 - and the 24 processor Sun Fire E6900 - follow on to the Sun Fire 6800.

In April, Sun will show the big boys with the 72 processor Sun Fire Sun Fire E25K, the 36 processor Sun Fire E20K and the 12 processor Sun Fire E2900.

On the x86 side of the house, Sun is touting the V20z - a two processor Opteron box. The kit starts under $3,000 and will be followed later this year by an Opteron workstation and a 4 processor server.

Sun is also finally announcing the B200x blade server, which is a Xeon-based complement to the B100x Athlon-based blade. Of course, we discovered all of these products quite some time ago.

With the Opteron box, Sun is the first major server vendor to offer a general purpose x86-64-bit system. IBM has been selling an Opteron server for the high performance computing market but little else. And HP is still lagging with its Opteron plans. Dell seems determined to pick up Intel's Yamhill product when it arrives - one day.

Sun is touting the upcoming Solaris 10 operating system for both the UltraSPARC and Opteron gear, and we'll have a bit more on the OS later today. ®

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