Sun powers up software, servers

Sun Microsystems has charted a new course for the way it will deliver software and manufacture processors in the hopes of keeping users as it faces increased competition from IBM and Intel.

Scott McNealy, chairman, CEO and president of Sun, outlined the company's new attack during a financial analyst conference held last week. The Sun chief unveiled a project, dubbed Orion, with its goal to deliver Sun's infrastructure software on a quarterly basis with the Solaris operating system. Along with this plan, Sun has developed a new class of multicore processors that the company says will give it an edge over IBM and Intel.

The new technology comes at a time when Sun faces criticism from analysts about its unrelenting focus on the UltraSPARC processor and Solaris. Competitors such as IBM and HP offer a variety of hardware to customers wrapped in services packages that exceed those of Sun. Conversely, Dell undercuts Sun with some of its low-cost Intel systems running Linux.

"Skepticism is at an all-time high," McNealy said.

To counter this pressure, Sun will emphasize its broad software portfolio and take a very pragmatic approach to delivering applications with Orion. Then, Sun is touting the value of its hefty research and development budget as an edge over rivals.

On the software side, Sun says it hopes Orion will make life easier on its customers. The company has long released the millions of lines of code that make up Solaris on a quarterly update schedule. This means users can plan for bug fixes, patches and new technology to arrive at the same time every 90 days. Now Sun will extend this strategy to middleware products such as the Sun One Application Server, Web Server and Directory Server.

In addition, it will ship management products such as Sun Cluster, its Grid Engine software and N1 server virtualization software on the same quarterly schedule. All these products will arrive on new Sun servers or be available on the disks Sun uses to ship Solaris.

"I had a conversation with a CEO last week," McNealy said in an interview. "They got tired of us releasing the portal one week, the directory server after that, the app server after, the operating system and then clustering. They never knew how to certify and test to a stable platform. So now we are going to give them quarterly releases."

Sun will deliver the Orion package for the first time near the end of the third quarter, making all the software available for standard Solaris and the version of Solaris that runs on Intel and Advanced Micro Devices processors. It then will follow near year-end with the same package for Linux.

The company plans to offer a traditional licensing model akin to what is now offered, a metered model and a flat-rate fee assessed at regular intervals. Sun hopes customers will pick the flat-rate route, which the company says would be most beneficial for users.

Meanwhile, Sun's new approach to chip making is a more radical move, as the company is building a type of symmetric multiprocessing system on a chip that differs from anything IBM or Intel has talked about thus far.

Known as the H-series, the new breed of chip will put multiple low-power, low-cost processor cores on a piece of silicon surrounded by huge amounts of memory. Sun says this will make its low-end servers churn through software faster than competing systems that rely on single-core, more-powerful chips.

"If it will boost performance, I will be interested," says Philip Brown, a senior systems administrator for a large financial institution in the Southwest. Brown already runs threaded applications on his servers, but says chip multithreading would help the operations of his Oracle servers and Web servers.

"I recently saw Java spec marks on an IBM p690 vs. a Sun 15K server. The machines had approximately the same megahertz per CPU, but the IBM did significantly better, on a CPU-to-CPU basis," he said. "I would expect [with chip multithreading] that Sun would level this current inequality."

The new chips should provide a real boost for software written to execute multiple software threads, or sequences of software instructions being executed by the pro-cessor, says David Yen, executive vice president in Sun's processor and network products group.

With multithreaded software running on several processor cores, Sun should be able to reduce the waiting time for data to return from memory.

The first H-series product will use two UltraSPARC II cores on a chip and be released in 2005.

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