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Sun breaks omerta for UltraSPARC IV+ speed bump

Server chief still hiding under Rock

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Sun Microsystems spends very little time talking up its UltraSPARC servers these days. The lack of chatter, however, doesn't mean Sun has ignored the kit. This week, Sun released faster versions of the UltraSPARC IV+ chips for its flagship SunFire line.

Customers will now find 1.95GHz and 2.1GHz iterations of the processor available for low-end and midrange machines. Higher-end kit appears available with the 1.95GHz chips only for the moment, excluding the beastly E25K, which is stuck at 1.8GHz. Sun continues to offer older UltraSPARC IV+ chips, running between 1.5GHz and 1.8GHz, across it SunFire line.

(Sun claims that the Sun Fire V490, V890, E2900, E4900, E6900, E20K and E25K servers are all available now with the new 1.95GHz and 2.1GHz UltraSPARC IV+ processors, although its web site tells the story we detailed above.)

Sun's UltraSPARC-based server revenue has spiked in recent months, despite executives ignoring the gear – other than the UltraSPARC T1-based kit - in the their meetings with the press. In the coming months, Sun will begin a transition away from its own processors and toward Fujitsu's SPARC64 chips, again excluding the UltraSPARC T1, which Sun will keep making and selling on its own.

The good news for Sun is that rivals HP and IBM don't have anything all that spectacular available for their high-end servers. HP received a boost with the release last year of the dual-core Montectio version of Itanium. That chip, however, arrived about a year late and could already use a refresh. Meanwhile, IBM has struggled to get Power6 out. The speedy processor was meant to ship last year and is now slated for a mid-2007 arrival. Industry gossip has spiked in recent weeks with pundits speculating that the mid-year date looks optimistic. IBM is either struggling to issue a new release of AIX (5.4) or is suffering from poor high-end yields with Power6 or both.

HP and IBM essentially bought time for Sun to work through the Fujitsu transition. Sun then plans to make a major processor leap in 2008 with the release of its Rock family of multi-core processors.

In a research note issued this week, Sanford Bernstein – no relation to the bears – analyst Toni “The Sack/Sock” Sacconaghi downgraded Sun. He warned that channel checks show Sun's US high-end server and storage sales coming in weak. Unlike other analysts who read rags like The Register and then claim to do “channel checks", Sacconaghi actually places calls, lending weight to his analysis.

Sun is also feeling pressure from a slowdown in Opteron-based server sales, he said.

On a ranting note, we remain miffed at Sun server chief John Fowler's decision to blow off our questions about where the mainstream Fujitsu SPARC64-based servers and Rock-based servers will overlap. It's not clear to us how Sun will position these boxes, since they seemed aimed at solving similar tasks.

Sun has urged that customers see the baby Rock chips – the UltraSPARC T1s – as aimed at thread-heavy, web services types of workloads. That's certainly fair enough. With Rock, however, we're talking about very large SMPs that will go after Oracle, SAP and the like. That's mainstream SPARC64 territory too.

During a recent briefing, Fowler claimed that he doesn't want to show Sun's Rock hand too early by answering our questions now. Such a stance benefits only Sun's largest customers who receive NDAed briefings about the company's future direction. Surely the rest of Sun's customer base would like to know what the hell is going on here with only a few months to go before Rock systems appear.

Are you meant to buy new Fujitsu systems or should you wait for the Rock kit? The answer is probably that you should wait – which would help explain Fowler's silence.

In any case, the UltraSPARC IV+ chip has done far better than anyone could have expected and, well, it's faster now. ®

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