Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/07/11/sun_opteron_flood/

Sun takes the Opteron highroad

Where blades are bloated and oddities thrive

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Servers, 11th July 2006 04:47 GMT

At long last, Sun Microsystems has concocted an x86 server line that all customers can take seriously. The company today rounded out its Opteron-based gear with three, new systems that stretch from "compact" blades to bulkier eight-socket boxes.

Regular Register readers will be well acquainted with the new servers. We've been writing about a couple of the boxes for two years and profiled all of the systems last week.

Still, we'll roll out the official details as Sun dished them.

At the high-end, Sun introduced the x4600. This 4U system starts out as a two-socket unit and can scale up to eight-sockets, giving Sun one of the largest x86 SMPs among the Tier 1s.

Sun has been handing out the x4600 to prized customers for months. In fact, hundreds of the servers currently sit at the Tokyo Institute of Technology as part of a massive cluster. The system grabbed the number seven spot on the most recent list of Top 500 supercomputers, making it the second fastest x86 system after a Xeon-based unit built by Dell for Sandia National Laboratories.

The server starts at $26,000, but then you knew that already.

On the blade server front, Sun has decided to announce its Sun Blade 8000 server module, which starts at $14,600.

This is actually the 19U chassis that will house both Sun's x86 and SPARC-based blades, although for some reason Sun has declined to announce its blades at this time. Customers won't be fooled by Sun's secrecy since the x8400 Opteron-based blades that eat up 10U of chassis space have already started appearing on Sun's price list.

The 19U chassis size seems astonishing to us.

HP, for example, just put out a new C-class blade system that uses a 10U chassis. HP slots blades, networking, storage, fans and power supplies in that entire package.

Sun only lets you stack 10 four-socket blades in the first 10U of its 19U chassis, leaving 9U for fans, power supplies and other accouterment. HP customers can slot eight four-socket blades in their 10U systems.

"Yes, they are more dense than Sun is, but our system is designed for the future," a spokesman told us.

And what a bloated future that must be.

It's fair enough that Sun wants to leave room for changes in networking or storage or whatever, but shipping a product nearly twice the size of a major rival seems odd in the compact blade space. Not to mention that you can fit three of HP's C-class enclosures in a single, 42U rack to only two of Sun's enclosures.

The x8400 blades are four-socket Opteron bad boys, placing Sun at the high-end once again. The company plans to release two- and possibly eight-socket blades over time. Regular Sun watchers will know to plan for a later rather than sooner arrival.

The last system is our favorite box - the x4500. This sucker has 48 SATA drives, two Opteron sockets, 10 hot swap fans, two half-height PCI cards, hot-swap power supplies, four Gigabit Ethernet ports and a SATA backplane with 48 HDD connections.

This system comes straight from Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim's start-up Kealia. Apparently, the box used to be one part of a larger media server type system. In typical fashion, it has taken Sun a couple of years to strip away whatever special sauce tied together the whole media server thingy, leaving customers with a 4U oddity packed to the gills with storage.

The x4500 appears to be vintage Bechtolhsheim with standard components arranged in a unique, compact fashion. The good news for Sun is that no one else sells anything like this right now. The bad news is that it won't be hard for rivals to replicate if they sense a flood of demand.

This system starts at $32,995.

With these three systems, Sun looks a lot more like a real x86 server vendor. It now has general purpose kit that covers the two-socket to eight-socket market in style. It also has a unique system and some blades, ending a very embarrassing period where Sun - the only major pure server vendor - didn't play in the fastest growing part of the server market.

The new boxes should provide a decent feel for how well Sun has assessed the x86 market and how much of an impact Bechtolsheim's return has made on the company. This is the second generation of Becky gear.

Sun always cracks us up by waiting to release a lot of servers at once in some kind of shock and awe exercise and then botching the actual launch.

First off, a lot of this hardware should have appeared last year. We can't seem to figure out what delays Sun's hardware production cycles again and again and again, but something is not right. Pushing out all of this gear at once just draws attention to this fact.

Then, you've got the x4600, which has been on sale for quite a few weeks. Sun tried to keep this box a secret for reasons that we can't figure out.

Lastly, you get Sun announcing the blade chassis but not the blades. Only those with a price list find the x8400 four-socket systems, while the two-socket blades are still MIA.

It's hard for us to understand why Sun couldn't have told a clear story around the x4600 and x4500 and actually explained what these servers can do in its press releases and interviews and then followed that release in a month or so with another clear story around the blades - perhaps even when it had the blades ready.

If this kind of thing is frustrating to us, we know it must be to customers as well.

Rant aside, Sun has taken the necessary steps toward boosting its x86 server revenue in a meaningful way, which is a must for the company. Focusing on the high-end of the market seems a solid approach for a company familiar in that territory. It limits Sun's volume assault - especially in blades - but lets it play off the strength of Solaris and Sun's sales knowhow.

And, heck, if customers start dumping Unix workloads onto eight-socket Opteron boxes, at least Sun will be the one doing the replacement. ®