Sun makes another bid for x86 server market

Sun Microsystems is taking another stab at the x86 server market, but the second time has already proven the charm for one of its Canadian technical computing customers.

The company on Tuesday launched its high-end Galaxy4, an eight-socket system which is officially called the Sun Fire X4600, along with a two-socket X4500, code-named Thumper. The firm also released the Sun Blade 8000 chassis capable of holding 10 four-socket blades. The products are all based on AMD’s Operton processors, with the price of the systems increasing for dual-core versions of the chips.

In a Webcast of the launch event, Sun executive vice-president John Fowler said the products were designed with server consolidation projects in mind. The company is boasting that the X4600, for example, will offer two times the performance with twice the scaleability of comparable Xeon-based servers, he said.

“Many people will use this to run more than one application,” he said. “This multiplies the bar in terms of the levels you can reach in your power use and systems utilization.”

Fowler said Sun is aiming the Galaxy line at technical as well as business customers. Canada’s Atlantic Computational Excellence Network, (ACEnet), which chose Sun as its preferred supplier late last year, is already making use of the X4600. ACENet, which is made up of seven post-secondary institutions, is using high-performance computing systems to model a variety of processes.

According to Peter Poole, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in modeling and computer simulation at St. Francis Xavier University. 

“As we speak, ACENet has a bunch of (the X4600s) being built into a cluster at Memorial (University) in St. John’s,” he said. “We have enough to build 100 core clusters.”

The ability to scale to 16 nodes is particularly useful, Poole said, because the inter-processor connection is huge.

“You used to spend so much money on processor-to-processor communication, you didn’t dare let serial users on, because you were just wasting that investment,” he said. “With the kind of node we’re seeing with the X4600 we can build just one cluster. There’s a tremendous savings in maintenance, and the amount of learning personnel need to go through.”

Fowler indicated there were many enterprises with the same needs.

“It opens up a whole different discussion with customers because you can say, ‘Why not just set up your infrastructure once?’’’ he said.

Although Sun has struggled in the x86 server space before, its launch of the first Galaxy set of products last fall put it on the road to gaining more credibility with customers, said Toronto-based IDC Canada analyst Alan Freedman.

“They have significant partnerships, especially with AMD. It shows a level of commitment that really wasn’t there first time around,” he said. “They’ve done their homework in terms of making sure they can present a good story, and there is a good story to tell.”

The X4600 with four 2.4GHz Opterons costs $25,995, with the price rising to $67,495 for eight 2.6GHz dual-core chips. The X4500 starts at $32,995 but costs $69,995 for a model with the top 24-terabyte capacity. The 8000, including a chassis and a low-end blade, starts at $19,940; a single top-end blade with four dual-core 2.6GHz Opterons and 64GB of memory costs $47,315.

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