Sun targets midrange server market with Sun Fire 12K

Seven months after unveiling its high-end Sun Fire 15K servers ranging from $1.4 million to $4 million, Sun Microsystems Tuesday launched its new, less-expensive Sun Fire 12K server line, filling a market niche between its bigger brothers and Sun's lower-end Sun Fire 6800 hardware.

The new machines are priced between US$500,000 and $1 million, giving Sun fresh ammunition in a server category in which it has not traditionally competed, said Clark Masters, a Sun vice president and general manager of enterprise system products, at today's unveiling in San Francisco.

"It's a brand new market for Sun to go and attack," he said. "It's been a bastion of success for [Hewlett-Packard Co.] and IBM, and we plan to go right at them."

The Sun Fire 12K is being aimed at customers as a prime tool for server consolidation, moving applications from mainframes onto less-costly servers, high-performance computing and running high-throughput applications.

The 12K can run four to 52 UltraSPARC III 900-MHz processors using up to 288GB of memory per server. The machines can also include up to nine of Sun's hot-swappable Uniboard CPU/memory boards. The Uniboards are interchangeable across all Sun Fire 3800 through 15K servers. The machines are seen by Sun as general-purpose servers for industries such as telecommunications, finance, health care, government, retail and manufacturing.

Shahin Khan, a Sun vice president of computer systems and the company's chief competition officer, said the new 12K server will aggressively take on IBM's high-end Regatta p690 server line and HP's Superdome series, as well as the midrange eServer p670 Unix machine IBM announced yesterday.

Khan was clear about Sun's disdain for IBM's p690 Regatta series as the two companies continue their traditional public sparring over their product lines. "The performance of the p690 is the same as junk bonds. You could get lucky, but buyer beware. We think that the 12K absolutely will slam the door" on the p690, Khan said.

Sun debuted its Sun Fire 15K high-end server last September, which has up to 72 processors and whose cost ranges from $1.4 million for a 16-CPU machine to $4 million for a 72-processor model.

The new Sun Fire 12K servers run Sun Solaris 8 operating systems.

Charles King, an analyst at Sageza Group Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., said that both Sun's 12K announcement today and IBM's p670 unveiling yesterday offer more proof that hardware makers are trying hard to find products they can sell at prices budget-strained customers can afford. "I think both of these announcements are an indication that demand for the higher-end machines might not be as high as the companies had hoped they would be," King said.

With the Sun Fire 12K, Sun is hoping that customers will buy it today and be happy that they can easily expand it to meet additional hardware needs in the future -- essentially building it up to the capacity of a Sun Fire 15K server if needed, King said. "The idea is, if all you can afford is a lower-end machine, well then [Sun] will get their foot in the door that way," he said.

Jean Bozman, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said the race for server market domination between Sun and IBM has escalated because of the tight economy and weak IT budgets. "They're really turning up the volume on their head-to-head competition," she said.

Yesterday, Sun announced price cuts of up to 41 percent on its line of Sun Fire 3800 through 15K family of UltraSPARC III processor-based midrange and high-end servers.

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