Sun hopes to rise again with Niagara

Sun hopes to rise again with Niagara

Sun Microsystems will try to convince legions of users who have switched to low-cost Windows and Linux x86 hardware for Web serving to switch back to the company's forthcoming UltraSparc T1 servers.

Sun formally unveiled the T1 processor, formerly code-named Niagara, at an event in San Francisco Monday. Executives declined to provide specifics about the servers that will become available next month with the chip, but said those servers will be ideal for Web serving and e-commerce applications, markets in which Sun has ceded market share to servers based on processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD)

The T1 processor will be available with either four, six, or eight cores, and each of those cores will be capable of running four threads. With a maximum power consumption of 70 watts, T1 servers will give IT managers a relatively inexpensive way of managing computing resources geared around delivering applications or data through the Internet, said David Yen, executive vice president of Sun's scalable servers group.

Sun's older UltraSparc servers were the choice of many companies building Web-based businesses in the late 1990s. However, servers with those chips were much more expensive than servers built using Intel's chips, and when the dot-com bust shattered many companies' IT budgets, Intel servers running Windows or Linux became the preferred choice when deploying servers to host Web sites or e-commerce applications.

Several years later, Sun now hopes to recapture those users by focusing on two areas: multithreading and power consumption. The T1 will be capable of processing up to 32 separate threads simultaneously, which allows it to accomplish more tasks during a single clock cycle than Intel's Xeon or AMD's Opteron, said Marc Tremblay, vice president and chief architect of Sun's network products.

That efficiency, in turn, allows Sun to run the T1 processor at a slower clock speed than its x86 rivals and therefore consume less power, Tremblay said. Power consumption has become a huge issue in recent years in server rooms as managers attempt to figure out how to pay for the ever-increasing amounts of electricity needed to run these servers and operate the room's cooling equipment.

The company does face a few challenges in the Web server market. IT managers might be wary about switching to a new instruction set, or back to an old one. The T1 is based on the Sparc instruction set, and software written for x86 will not work on T1 servers. However, Web applications are increasingly developed in an environment that exists independently of the instruction set architecture, such as IBM's WebSphere or BEA Systems 's Weblogic, Tremblay said.

Moving those types of applications to different hardware within the same development environment is relatively easy, compared to porting applications that are tied to a specific instruction set, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, California. However, a fair amount of testing and validation is required to make sure that process goes smoothly.

Also, Sun's reputation as a high-cost vendor could hurt its chances in this market. But the company says it has learned its lesson about premium pricing.

"We will be price-competitive with x86," Yen said.

The new servers will be worth a look for users that are struggling to increase computing power without breaking the bank on management costs, Brookwood said. "For IT managers with power constraints in data-center system deployment, these things are a godsend," he said.

Sun does need to clarify its software licensing strategy for these multicore, multithreaded servers, Brookwood said. With the rise of the multicore processor, software vendors have been forced to rethink the per-processor pricing strategies that have been employed for years. Tremblay and Yen declined to comment on Sun's software strategy, but promised to provide more details in early December.

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