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Sun puts Xeon, Sparc T2+ chips in Netra rack servers

Maybe calling on telcos and service providers ain't such a bad idea

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Server maker Sun Microsystems is to take the wraps off three new servers, aimed at telecommunications companies and other service providers and network equipment manufacturers serving the global - and booming - communications space.

Two of the new machines are the first in Sun's Netra server line to use Xeon processors from Intel, and a third uses Sun's own Sparc T2+ processor. Telco servers adhere to their own sets of standards, called Network Equipment Building Systems or NEBS, that were created by the telecommunications firms (not the IT vendors), and the telcos also have their own set of blade form factor standards. The most recent of these is AdvancedTCA, which are distinct from commercial blade servers and their chassis.

The NEBS standards provide a DC power option and also specify that servers can only be 21 inches deep, instead of the 28 inches that commercial rack servers take up. This difference in size means server makers cannot jam as much stuff into a telco box as they can in a general purpose server with similar functionality.

While many vendors ship NEBS-compliant machinery - meaning the gear has been built to adhere to the NEBS standards - Sun has always prided itself on the fact that its Netra lineup is NEBS-certified, which means Sun has done the testing and got the paperwork together that the telcos and service providers would have to pay to perform before they deployed the boxes in production. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is a selling point to phone companies.

The three machines announced by Sun are not blades, but rack servers. The Netra X4250 is a 2U box with two processor sockets on the motherboard that uses Intel's low-voltage and therefore low power Xeon L5408 chip; the L5408 is a quad-core "Harpertown" Xeon that runs at 2.13 GHz and that has a 40 watt thermal design point (TDP). The box has 16 memory slots, which means it can support 64 GB using reasonably affordable (but still pricey) 4 GB DDR2 DIMMs; 8 GB DIMMs are not yet available, and you should count yourself lucky because if telcos decided they needed them they would have to double your phone bill.

The Netra X4250 has four Gigabit Ethernet ports on the motherboard, two PCI-X slots, and four PCI-Express slots; one of the PCI-Express slots is used by the SAS host bus adapter. The machine has room for four SAS drives.

In a base configuration, with a single L5408 chip, 4 GB of main memory, and 1 146 GB SAS disk, the Netra X4250 costs $4,295. Quadrupling the memory, adding a second processor, and putting in a second disk boosts the price to $6,825. These prices are approximately $300 to $1,500 higher than equivalent generic x64 rack servers from Sun.

You can see why Sun is keen on selling Netra servers. According to Mark Butler, Netra systems director at Sun, in the fiscal 2008 year ended in June, Sun increased the number of customers it sold Netra systems to by 32 per cent. While Butler can't give specifics on Netra revenues and growth rates, he did confirm that the Netra business is growing faster than Sun's overall server business.

Sales are particularly strong as telcos and service providers roll out mobile and broadband infrastructure in Brazil, Russia, China, India, and across Africa. In the more established Western markets, where the economy is not doing so hot right now, telcos are nonetheless adding new broadband services over mobile networks - therefore adding server capacity as they build up their software applications.

The second new Netra server in the Sun lineup is the Netra X4450, which is a four-socket, 4U rack server that is based on Intel's quad-core "Tigerton" Xeon MP processor (not the new "Dunnington" chips, which come in six-core and quad-core variants), which has an 80 watt TDP. (Why Sun didn't use the new 50 watt Dunnington L7445 quad-core probably has more to do with NEBS certification than anything else, and all of the Dunnington chips can be plugged into this box anyway.)

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