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Sun Thumper server plans excavated by The Reg

Opteron is go go go

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Exclusive Sun Microsystems has an all out Opteron onslaught planned for next year that could include attacks on both the server and storage sides of the house, The Register has learned.

For years, Sun has promoted the idea of a data center-in-a-box centered around its UltraSPARC-based servers. CEO Scott McNealy has been the leading advocate of this plan that has Sun ship pre-tested, pre-configured bundles of servers, storage, networking and software to customers. Sun has promoted this as a better deal for customers than buying parts piecemeal and then assembling the gear on their own.

Sun will extend this concept to the Opteron market in the coming months. It currently sells two- and four-processor Opteron-based servers, but plans to complement these systems with boxes designed by Sun cofounder Andy Bechtolsheim, who returned to Sun earlier this year. These systems will be configured to work with a wide range of networking gear, storage boxes and software, sources told El Reg.

Such a move, however, is not surprising. Sun is clearly looking to add its enterprise expertise to the world of x86 computing and make large hardware sales. What is surprising is a secret project code-named Thumper that goes along with the Opteron agenda.

At present, details on Thumper are proving hard to unearth. What is known is that Thumper is a specially-engineered system that combines Opteron processors, unique networking equipment and some of Sun's most-advanced file system technology. The 64-bit release of Solaris 10 also plays a central role in the Thumper project, sources said.

So far, our helpers are staying mum on what the secret sauce of Thumper really is - as Sun believes the system will be a major threat to competitors. As we understand it, tweaks done to Thumper boxes will make them well-outperform simple combinations or clusters of Opteron-based servers from a networking, processing power and software partitioning standpoint. Since Sun owns all of the parts needed to make Thumper other than the Opteron chips, it's thought the company will be able to price Thumper systems far below competing offerings. Thumper is due out in the first half of 2005.

Along with Thumper, The Register has also uncovered a futuristic Opteron-based storage system in Sun's labs. This system is still a research project and may never make it to market, but it's a brand new direction for the company.

The storage box - code-named HoneyComb - is around 3U high and has four Opteron blades in the front-end. These servers connect into a midplane, which has 16 disk drives total on the back-end. It's basically a NAS (network attached storage) system packed full of capacity. The system connects to the network via two gigabit Ethernet ports on each blade.

Sources have revealed that Sun is looking to use this system as a type of archive box for massive amounts of storage. It's somewhat similar to the Centerra system from EMC but would be used to hold tera- and even petabytes of information at a low cost.

We'll bring more information on this gear as it arrives.

In total, Sun has clearly committed to the x86 market in a massive way. Customers could see serious benefits with Sun applying its well-regarded engineering expertise in this "commodity" market. It, however, remains to be seen if Sun can keep costs down on these systems as promised. The whole idea behind x86 systems is that they are cheap and aimed at general purpose tasks. If Sun can harness the power of Opteron and maintain decent price/performance, it could be a real threat in a market that it was slow to enter. ®

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