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Sun hopes to gain new ground with Galaxy line

Sun Microsystems unveiled Monday a new line of dual-core servers that experts say may be enough to help what's ailing the server giant.

Following the steady erosion of its market share in the distributed computing environment, Sun Microsystems Inc. went back to the drawing board and launched a new line of servers. Experts said the new machines, code-named Galaxy, have what it takes to gain back some of the ground Sun has been losing to its competitors.

Announced Monday, Sun's newest offerings are powered by Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processors and have dual-core capabilities. The family of x64 servers -- so named because of the 64-bit AMD chips -- run from one-way, low-end boxes (the Sun Fire X2100) to two-socket, four-way machines (Sun Fire X4100 and X4200). Sun plans to expand the line to include an eight-socket, 16-way machine in the future.

Sun's new launch has Dell clearly in its crosshairs, with aggressive pricing and comparison benchmarking.

Pradeep Parmar, product line marketing manager for Sun's x64 systems, said a 1U Sun Fire X2100 starts at $745. "It's a rack server, stripped of all the bells and whistles, but it's using Opteron processors," Parmar said.

Parmar said in benchmarking a Sun Fire X4100 against Dell's PowerEdge 6850 Xeon four-way server, the Sun Fire was one and a half times faster, at half the price, a quarter of the size and one-third the power consumption.

Gordon Haff, senior analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata, agreed that the new servers will have the biggest advantage over Dell, an Intel-only server manufacturer.

"Dell doesn't have Opteron or dual-core at this point," Haff said. "Dell also has a relatively weak [server] management structure in place. It relies on third-party tools, while Sun has full featured management built in."

But other vendors are going to be tougher competition.

"Compared to [Hewlett-Packard], the comparison is closer than it is with Dell. Sun may have a slight performance advantage with the newest, most powerful Opteron chips, but that advantage is small," Haff said.

Sun has tapped into a hot-selling point with this launch, energy efficiency.

Graham Lovell, senior director of x64 servers at Sun, said the press started publicizing the energy efficiency with the launch of dual-core chips from AMD, and now server farmers are asking for more energy-efficient servers.

According to Lovell, IT managers are updating their server infrastructures and finding that they need to add more HVAC and power supply equipment to handle increased power loads.

"If you can add [servers] without adding more power and cooling infrastructure, you're saving money," Lovell said.

In addition to the new server launch, Sun is announcing its first in-house support for Windows. According to Lovell, the company had used third-party support for Microsoft customers, but now it will handle support internally.

"Are we selling Windows? No. But customers are expecting manufacturers to stand by the software that runs on their machines," Lovell said.

Sun has historically been reluctant to support software other than Solaris, which offers a high profit margin. But according to experts, this acceptance of other operating systems is what's necessary for Sun to expand beyond shops running Solaris.

According to Haff, a large part of any company's business is to sell to its installed base, but with increased support for Windows and Linux, Sun will compete for IBM's, HP's and Dell's customers.

"Solaris -- despite whatever technical advantages it may have -- is going to be a harder sell to someone not running Solaris already," Haff said. "Not to say that people don't adopt new environments, but it's an easier sell on Linux. And Sun isn't going to sell Windows, but they're going to support it."

These servers are also available through Sun's pre-configured shipping program, through which Sun will package an entire rack integrated with power, networking and software.

"A typical data center is ordering several servers, but they come one by one. You can spend days, weeks integrating them. It's very time consuming, hooking up wiring, networks and power supplies," Parmar said.

For a limited time, customers who purchase 20 or more Sun Fire X2100, Sun Fire X4100 or Sun Fire X4200 will receive the Sun Rack cabinet for free.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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