Sun Microsystems and Intel announced Monday an alliance that will see Intel’s Xeon chips placed in certain Sun servers and workstations, while Intel agreed to endorse Solaris as its preferred, mainstream operating system for the processor.

Speaking via a Webcast from San Francisco, Sun Microsystems president and CEO Jonathan Schwartz said the partnership would represent a huge boost for Solaris, which he said once faced the same fate as Unix as an operating system on the decline.

“What was potentially in question two or three years ago — what will happen to Solaris — that is no longer in question,” he said, acknowledging that Intel has not always been Sun’s biggest ally. “I think we’ve had a bit of an ebb and flow in our relationship. We’ve only been detecting flow in the last six months and we want to continue on that.”

Sun’s maneuvering Solaris into the position of operating system of choice for the Intel Xeon chip is a real coup, said Schwartz, since Microsoft Windows and Linux are the more common operating systems for the x86 chips used in servers.

Although it builds its own UltraSparc microprocessors for data centre servers, Schwartz said the Intel partnership would not hurt that area of its business.

“Every business we build at Sun is independent of the others. They are related to one another, but they have to remain separate,” he said. “If all we do is build software for our own processor or our own systems, we lose the bulk of the market . . . By definition we are a minority of the market, and we are looking forward to going after as large a market as possible.”

Microprocessor analyst Nathan Brookwood, who runs IT industry research company Insight 64, said that this kind of diversification is both a very savvy move on Sun’s part, and a continuation of the strategy it’s been using recently. “Over the last two to three years, they’ve continued to expand their range of customers. Three years ago, they had Sparc systems, and then they had the x86’s from Intel, and then from AMD,” he said.

Brookwood said he sees Sun as evolving with the market and away from the exclusivity of other arrangements, like Dell’s recent Intel-only servers and the preponderance of AMD chips that Sun itself formerly offered, that prompt “a litany from potential customers about what (chips) are better.”

Said Brookwood: “Now they can give customers what they ask for. It’s good for Sun and Intel, and it’s even good for AMD, in a weird way, because if Sun’s better (and attracting more customers), they do have the lion’s share of Sun’s chips.”

Companies very seldom need help choosing which chip it wants to go with, according to Brookwood. “But as soon as (Sun) has both, they can give one or the other, in what AMD calls ‘chipnosticism,’” said Brookwood.

Intel president Paul Otellini said Sun’s success in vertical markets such as financial services and telecommunications could create new opportunities for its chips. “That allows us to get Xeon into the space where it really isn’t today,” he said.

Otellini said advances in the number of transistors used to simply means higher clock speeds, but that’s changed.

“Think of it as a template to put new features on a chip,” he said, citing improved I/O and the ability to support multiple operating system environments. “We’ll deliver more performance but we’ll do it through multiple cores. That means lower power, lower costs, but gives people more performance.”

Brookwood said the chips would be invaluable, he said, in situations where a company couldn’t get any more power into the data centre, or is maxed out on heating or cooling resources. “They would offer a unique advantage for those who need an amount of computing performance per unit of energy put in for certain types of jobs, such as web-based applications. They can do a lot more work with a lot less power.”

Intel has struggled for years to promote a high-end processor called Itanium to compete with IBM’s Power processor as well as UltraSparc, but Otellini avoided questions about whether it would one day be included in its Sun partnership.

“I think it would be to re-open the religious war on Itanium. Solaris does not support Intanium today. If Sun chooses to support it we’d be delighted. If they don’t, it’s just a business decision on their side.”

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