Sun readies new rack-mount Cobalt appliance

SAN FRANCISCO (05/13/2002) - Sun Microsystems Inc. will begin shipping a rack-mount version of its Cobalt server appliance next month. The product includes new software that allows users to access some of their own business applications through the Cobalt management interface.

The Sun Cobalt RaQ 550 is a 1U (1.75 inches) rack server that will be priced starting at US$1,699. The system comes with a version of Red Hat Inc.'s operating system based on the 2.4 Linux kernel, a 1.26GHz Intel Corp. Pentium III processor, two 80G-byte hard drives and up to 2G bytes of memory.

Sun has made it possible for customers to add links to some of their own applications with the RaQ 550's preloaded software, said Vivek Mehra, vice president and general manager of Sun Cobalt. The software allows users to add an icon to the system's interface to provide fast access to internal corporate applications, he said.

"A lot of the simple goodness remains, but we have opened (the software) up to be more applicable to some of Sun's markets," Mehra said.

Several vendors rushed to bring out server appliances during the Internet boom, hoping to attract customers with systems that handled specific tasks and came with software designed to make them easier to configure and use. Just as the appliance craze reached its peak, however, hardware sales slowed dramatically and customers began to ask how badly they needed an appliance tuned specifically for e-mail, serving Web pages or running a database.

By allowing customers to modify its appliance software more easily, Sun has managed to avoid some of the pitfalls that caught other vendors and has emerged as the appliance leader, according to one analyst.

"In general, the fixed function appliance was a loser," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Nashua, New Hampshire-based Illuminata Inc."Given that, you have to give Sun credit for keeping (this type of server) going. They are the dominant vendor really for this type of product."

"What Cobalt is doing here that I like is the software play," Haff said. "They are moving it more to a modular-software-architecture play than a hardware play."

With the Cobalt software offered currently, developers can perform tasks like setting up a new user account or checking for hardware failures by clicking icons in the management interface. Users will now be able to extend this method to their own software and place a link to a custom firewall or e-commerce application, for example, into the Cobalt manager.

This should add some of the same ease-of-use functions associated with the Cobalt software to the user's own applications, according to Mehra.

One beta tester was impressed with the work Sun has done.

"They've redefined the GUI (graphical user interface) and added a lot more features that seem to be fairly easy to use," said Steve Rogoschewsky, vice president and co-founder of BlackSun Inc., a hosting company in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. "There are significant performance improvements as well."

Sun also made it easier for administrators to make changes inside the RaQ 550, cutting down on the number of internal cables and making it possible to open the system's case without any tools, Rogoschewsky said.

These types of improvements could have the Cobalt line poised to do well when hardware sales pick up, Haff said.

"When sales come back, this product does have some real business applications and could be a system the channel can use," Haff said.

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