Sun raises stakes with 72-processor server

Sun Microsystems has added more horsepower to its UltraSPARC server lineup, a move analysts said bolsters its dominance of the Unix market and boosts the company's competitive position against rival IBM.

Sun launched its long-awaited Sun Fire 15K, code-named Starcat, last week. Unlike its predecessor, the 64-bit UltraSPARC II E10K machine, the Sun Fire 15K supports as many as 72 processors and 18 I/O hubs, company officials said. By substituting those I/O hubs for CPUs, users can boost the server's processing power to 106 chips.

The Sun Fire 15K offers new options to Sun's customer base, said Steve Josselyn, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp.

"Customers had been waiting for quite some time for the UltraSPARC III chip, and this is the delivery of that. Having 72 processors gives them additional headroom," he said.

Ed Broderick, an analyst at Robert Frances Group Inc. in Westport, Conn., said the server will also help Sun compete for non-Unix customers, such as those with IBM's RS/6000 midrange servers and s390 mainframes.

"Sun is taking dead aim at IBM," Broderick said. "This is a case of Sun getting more sophisticated in its capabilities and maturing, and Sun is coming on like gangbusters."

The worldwide Unix server market reached US$29 billion last year, according to IDC. Sun led the pack with a 35 percent market share, followed by Hewlett-Packard Co. with 23 percent, IBM with 18 percent and Compaq Computer Corp. with 8 percentBut in the worldwide high-end server market, which includes high-end Unix machines and mainframes and totaled $12 billion last year, the leadership roles are reversed, IDC said. IBM holds 36 percent of that market, followed by Sun with 18 percent, Compaq and Tokyo-based Fujitsu Ltd. with roughly 8 percent each and HP with 6 percent.

The Sun Fire 15K will be available in four configurations, ranging from a 16-processor model, which costs about $1.4 million, to the 72-processor model, with a price tag of about $4 million, Sun officials said.

The new box, built by Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc., also sports 900-MHz copper-based chips and embedded memory controllers.

Sun's Solaris 8 operating system is required for the new hardware.

Sun has sold about 5,000 UltraSPARC II E10K machines since March 1997 at an average price of $1 million each, said Clark Masters, vice president and general manager of enterprise system products at Sun.

While Sun hopes to maintain that sales track record with the Sun Fire 15K, analysts cautioned that the high-end server market has slowed down this year.

"It has certainly become a buyer's market for any high-end system," said Brian Richardson, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "Last year and in 1999, it was still a seller's market because of Y2k-driven Web-enabling of legacy applications. IT budgets are tighter this year."

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