Sun expands its reach

Despite the industry's economic downturn and strong competition from Intel-based rivals, Sun Microsystems nonetheless is moving ahead with multiple products based on both Sparc and Intel chips and is entering new markets, a Sun official said during a briefing Monday.

In a press event at Sun facilities, Clark Masters, executive vice president and general manager of Enterprise Systems Products at Sun, said the dot-com meltdown and attendant slowdown in sales to telecommunications and financial services companies has led Sun to push into new markets such as retail and life sciences. The company also is readying new Intel-based Linux systems as 32-bit complements to its bread-and-butter 64-bit Sparc systems. Sparc 4 systems, meanwhile, are expected in midrange to large Sun systems early in the second half of 2003.

Masters also had words for Oracle, saying the longtime Sun partner's personal interests call for de-emphasizing hardware sales, which are a Sun specialty, in favor of software, which Oracle offers.

To improve its hardware sales, Sun is endeavoring to provide made-to-order systems customized to customer choices, said Masters.

"We're changing the way we primarily do business," Masters said. "As opposed to selling components, you want to configure [systems] to the customer's order."

To this end, Sun has been ramping up its CRS (Customer Ready Systems) program, begun last May and now accounting for about 5 percent of sales of Sun's mid-range systems, the SunFire 3800 through 6800 lines, according to Ravi Pendekanti, Sun's director of solutions marketing in the Enterprise Systems Products group. The company would like to bring that figure up to about 70 percent to 80 percent in a year, he said. CRS is available for all of Sun's server lines.

Customers, meanwhile, have changed their focus from pushing the limits of requirements to an emphasis on total cost of ownership and return on investment, Masters said.

Sun is pursuing markets such as government, pharmaceuticals, life sciences, and retail, which the company had de-emphasized during the dot-com boom when financial services and telcos were prominent, he said. "Auto ID" applications, for inventory, are one such new focus, he added.

"You could probably build a case that we are over-invested in [telco and financial services]," which at one point accounted for 60 percent of the company's business, he said.

Sun's Sparc architecture remains a focal point of the company's hardware strategy, as the Solaris OS does to its software plans, Masters said.

"Sparc is the volume leader in 64-bit computing and Intel isn't there; so we're going to leverage our strength in 64-bit computing," Masters said. On the 32-bit side, Sun will offer its Intel-based LX50 systems, which can run the Linux OS. Sun will roll out more 32-bit Intel systems as well, which will be commodity systems in Sun's hardware line, he said.

Sun's developing its own technology in-house works to its advantage, Masters said.

"We believe our competitive advantage is we're a systems company. We own the processor, the interconnect, and the operating system. We can build better system solutions by owning all the intellectual property," said Masters.

As far as Sun displacing Solaris with Linux, Masters rejected this idea. While Linux is in place on the Intel box, it will not displace Solaris on Sparc, according to Masters.

"Sun would not consider moving to Linux," said Masters, claiming the Linux is tightly controlled by the Linux community and Linus Torvalds, developer of Linux.

"The Linux kernel is not aimed at enterprise technology. It's aimed at the very low end and it's tightly controlled," Masters said. He then recited a litany of functions in which he said Solaris beats out Linux, including symmetric multiprocessing support, error handling and recovery, and file systems.

Commenting on efforts in the Intel camp to promote clustering of Intel systems, Masters said symmetric multiprocessing systems can be preferable to clustering when applications take dozens or even hundreds of processors, since such applications are usually written to a shared memory programming model that utilizes one instance of the operating system. Sun, however, does offer clustered systems.

Masters also said longtime Sun partner Oracle, specifically CEO Larry Ellison, and rival Dell, namely Dell CEO Michael Dell, are pursuing their own interests in promoting Intel-based clusters over larger non-Intel systems such as Sun's.

"Is Larry the guy to figure out what the architecture is for the next five years?" Masters asked. It is to Oracle's own advantage to see dollars moved from hardware to software and services, he said.

Oracle could not provide an executive to respond to Masters' comments Monday evening, but a company representative noted that Sun and Oracle have collaborated in promoting Oracle's Real Application Clusters (RAC) technology and noted there is a configuration of RAC certified on Sun systems.

An analyst said Sun remains an important platform for Oracle.

"Oracle is continuing its longtime stance of being available on a variety of platforms," said analyst Jean Bozman, research director in the worldwide server group at IDC, in Mountain View, Calif.

"[The Sun platform is] definitely generating a lot of revenue on a continuing basis," for Oracle, Bozman said.

Masters also said to look for Sun to pursue trends such as on-chip multiprocessing, via its acquisition of Afara Websystems. This technology, slated to be in systems early next year, could be used in blade systems and provide for horizontal scaling inside of a chip, he said.

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