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Between a Rock and a hard place

The APL servers that came from its partnership with Fujitsu - now sold as the Sparc Enterprise series and just upgraded to four-core Sparc64 VII "Jupiter" processors in July - came to market in April 2007 nearly a year late - and two years late, if you look at old Fujitsu roadmaps that had the Jupiter chips pegged for mid-2006.

At this point, Fowler says, that at the high end of the Sun product line, the transition is mostly complete and customers who need big Sparc iron are mostly buying the Sparc Enterprise machinery - not opting for Sun's own UltraSparc-IV+ dual-core processors. With software being priced per core and single-thread performance also being important for big iron, the Fujitsu Sparc64 VII boxes meet the needs of enterprise customers better than Sun's current - or rather, ancient by computer standards - UltraSparc-IV+ iron.

Of course, the Rock-based systems coming next year could change that. "A lot of people have been talking about Rock and how it fits in our product line," says Fowler. To help clear things up a bit, Fowler says that systems using the Rock processors will be positioned right above the four-socket Victoria Falls machines. He reiterated that Sun is on track to ship Rock boxes in the second half of 2009, and said that the Supernova servers support logical domains (LDoms) and other unspecified features in the Niagara family of chips.

According to Fowler, Sun's goal is for a midrange Rock server to have equivalent or better performance as a high-end HP Itanium or IBM Power server. "Instead of a midrange machine being a baby version of a high-end server, we have figured out how to put a lot more performance into a midrange package," he said.

In the meantime, Fujitsu and Sun are cooking up another machine using the quad-core Sparc64 VII processors, which Fowler characterizes as a gap filler without being any more specific. The Sparc Enterprise M line includes the M4000, a four-socket 6U box; the M5000, an eight-socket 10U box; the M8000, a 16-socket box that takes up an entire rack; and the M9000, a two-rack box that has 32 or 64 sockets.

Sun and Fujitsu could do a two-socket entry machine, but this would crimp Niagara box sales, so this seems unlikely. A 12-socket M6000 machine is a possibility, particularly if the two companies can keep it down to a half-rack or less of space. It is also possible to put a 32-socket version of the M8000 into the field, better competing against HP and IBM iron that stops short of the largest SMP configurations. Whatever the new Sparc Enterprise M machine is, it is coming before the end of 2008, says Fowler.

Incidentally, the original Fujitsu-Sun deal only covered two generations of Fujitsu iron and was set to run out. But Fowler says the APL product line will be enhanced and sold by Sun through 2012. He did not elaborate on whether Sun and Fujitsu have already inked an extended deal, but said the companies have a multi-decade partnership and they are committed to working together.

X64 marks the spot

Finally, that brings up the Galaxy x64 servers. Sun banked heavily on AMD's Opteron processors a few years back, hoping that clever engineering and super-dense designs would give it a big piece of the x64 racket. The company turned to the server designs of Sun founder Andy Bechtolsheim, who worked on products at his own company (Kealia). These ended up at the heart of the supercomputers and streaming servers that Sun announced after it rolled out the initial Galaxy machines.

While Sun had triple-digit growth in its x64 biz early on, the Galaxy growth rates have settled down even as Sun's designs improved and it has embraced Intel's processors. "Having a robust AMD product line was not as much of a help as we expected," concedes Fowler. "I am not happy with the growth rates, either."

Fowler says a lot of this has to do with transitions at Intel and AMD. Sun has upgraded its machines to the quad-core "Barcelona" processors from AMD, which were delayed because of a bug last summer. The company is ready to plunk the "Shanghai" shrink of Barcelona into its Galaxy boxes.

Perhaps more importantly, Sun is working hard on machines using Intel's future "Nehalem" Xeon processors and their QuickPath Interconnect scheme, which is a riff on the good bits in the Opteron designs. These are expected to come to market some time in the first half of 2009.

Given the fact that x64 shipments dwarf RISC and Itanium server shipments, and Solaris 10 runs as well on x64 iron as it does on Sparc iron, you'd think Sun's Galaxy business would be many times larger than the Niagara business. But so far, it isn't. Sun is hoping that a reorganized sales unit that is being encouraged to push x64 boxes and new channels, like its partnership with CDW, America's biggest reseller, will help. Time will tell. ®

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