Analysis You wouldn't know it by the revenue and profit figures, but Sun Microsystems is managing a fair amount of churn in its Sparc and X64 server product lines.
It is something of an accomplishment for Sun that it has been able to embrace x64 chips in its "Galaxy" boxes, shift its entry and mid-range customers to its "Niagara" class of Sparc T series platforms, and essentially ditch its own UltraSparc-IV+ platforms for Sparc64 machines designed primarily by Japanese partner Fujitsu - while keeping revenues more or less the same.
That's not good enough for Wall Street, which wants Sun to grow sales and generate profits rather than flat line quarter after quarter.
For those of you with long memories, IBM didn't do any better than Sun is doing now in managing product transitions. In the early 1990s IBM faced the collapse of proprietary mainframe and minicomputers as Unix servers and then x86 machinery took off.
Indeed, IBM was a hell of a lot closer to bankruptcy than anyone might care to think about when Lou Gerstner took over on April Fool's Day in 1993. Gerstner's genius? He kept IBM together rather than breaking it apart and then made customer service a business, rather than an attitude for taking care of customers who bought hardware and software.
Sun is juggling some tough transitions right now, and John Fowler, the executive vice president of Sun's Systems group, which creates servers and storage, is the first to admit it. But Sun is, as ever, hopeful that engineering prowess will get server revenues growing again.
'Imminent to ship'
According to Fowler, the four-socket variant of the "Victoria Falls" Sparc T2+ processor is "imminent to ship". This processor first appeared in two-socket "Niagara" class servers, code-named Maramba, back in early April.
To make the Sparc T2+ chip, Sun took a Sparc T2 chip and took out two on-chip memory controllers and the integrated "Neptune" 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports. It replaced them with symmetric multiprocessing links that use some of the memory lanes on the processor to lash the two caches in the chips together into a two-way processor complex. Each Sparc T2 and T2+ chip has eight Sparc cores, with eight threads each, for a total of 64 threads.
Cores run at 1.2 GHz or 1.4 GHz. With the four-socket Victoria Falls machine, Sun will be able to put 256 threads in a 4U box purportedly code-named "Botaka". The four processors in this impending server do not link together gluelessly (as they did in the two-socket box using T2 chips), but rather are connected through a crossbar switch named "Zambezi".
And once you have a crossbar switch, of course, there is no reason to stop at four sockets - and perhaps Sun won't. Fowler is not saying, and sources at Sun speaking earlier this year said larger T2+ boxes were not on the way.
"We are positioning this Victoria Falls server as a mid-range platform," says Fowler. "We're going to see a resurgence in the mid-range, which has been a pretty rugged place for a lot of product lines."
Sun needs a resurgence. Servers using the Sparc T series of processors offer throughput and performance per watt that is comparable or better than X64 iron, and thet have the added benefit of being binary compatible with fleets of ancient Sparc iron out there in the world. But this business runs only at an annualized rate of about $1.3bn a year. Sun needs this to be a several billion dollars a year to be a profitable company and worth all the engineering effort.
It would have helped Sun's cause immensely to have gotten the UltraSparc RK "Rock" 16-core processors into the field on time - a time when competitors also stumbled. Intel has delayed its "Tukwila" quad-core Itaniums (coming maybe early next year) and IBM's was late with its dual-core Power6 chips (really only shipping early this year in volume) and therefore its eight-core Power7 chips (now expected in early 2010).
The "Rock" chips are for mid-range and high-end servers that should have shipped about now, but were pushed out a year to the second half of 2008 last year. Sun has been vague about what is wrong enough to have delayed the machines, but "Supernova" systems using the Rock processors are implementing transactional memory - the first commercial servers to use this untested technology - and the Rock chips are implementing a new approach to instruction pipeline efficiency called scout threads, which is also untested.
Between a Rock and a hard place
The APL servers that came from its partnership with Fujitsu - now sold as the Sparc Enterprise series and just upgraded to four-core Sparc64 VII "Jupiter" processors in July - came to market in April 2007 nearly a year late - and two years late, if you look at old Fujitsu roadmaps that had the Jupiter chips pegged for mid-2006.
At this point, Fowler says, that at the high end of the Sun product line, the transition is mostly complete and customers who need big Sparc iron are mostly buying the Sparc Enterprise machinery - not opting for Sun's own UltraSparc-IV+ dual-core processors. With software being priced per core and single-thread performance also being important for big iron, the Fujitsu Sparc64 VII boxes meet the needs of enterprise customers better than Sun's current - or rather, ancient by computer standards - UltraSparc-IV+ iron.
Of course, the Rock-based systems coming next year could change that. "A lot of people have been talking about Rock and how it fits in our product line," says Fowler. To help clear things up a bit, Fowler says that systems using the Rock processors will be positioned right above the four-socket Victoria Falls machines. He reiterated that Sun is on track to ship Rock boxes in the second half of 2009, and said that the Supernova servers support logical domains (LDoms) and other unspecified features in the Niagara family of chips.
According to Fowler, Sun's goal is for a midrange Rock server to have equivalent or better performance as a high-end HP Itanium or IBM Power server. "Instead of a midrange machine being a baby version of a high-end server, we have figured out how to put a lot more performance into a midrange package," he said.
In the meantime, Fujitsu and Sun are cooking up another machine using the quad-core Sparc64 VII processors, which Fowler characterizes as a gap filler without being any more specific. The Sparc Enterprise M line includes the M4000, a four-socket 6U box; the M5000, an eight-socket 10U box; the M8000, a 16-socket box that takes up an entire rack; and the M9000, a two-rack box that has 32 or 64 sockets.
Sun and Fujitsu could do a two-socket entry machine, but this would crimp Niagara box sales, so this seems unlikely. A 12-socket M6000 machine is a possibility, particularly if the two companies can keep it down to a half-rack or less of space. It is also possible to put a 32-socket version of the M8000 into the field, better competing against HP and IBM iron that stops short of the largest SMP configurations. Whatever the new Sparc Enterprise M machine is, it is coming before the end of 2008, says Fowler.
Incidentally, the original Fujitsu-Sun deal only covered two generations of Fujitsu iron and was set to run out. But Fowler says the APL product line will be enhanced and sold by Sun through 2012. He did not elaborate on whether Sun and Fujitsu have already inked an extended deal, but said the companies have a multi-decade partnership and they are committed to working together.
X64 marks the spot
Finally, that brings up the Galaxy x64 servers. Sun banked heavily on AMD's Opteron processors a few years back, hoping that clever engineering and super-dense designs would give it a big piece of the x64 racket. The company turned to the server designs of Sun founder Andy Bechtolsheim, who worked on products at his own company (Kealia). These ended up at the heart of the supercomputers and streaming servers that Sun announced after it rolled out the initial Galaxy machines.
While Sun had triple-digit growth in its x64 biz early on, the Galaxy growth rates have settled down even as Sun's designs improved and it has embraced Intel's processors. "Having a robust AMD product line was not as much of a help as we expected," concedes Fowler. "I am not happy with the growth rates, either."
Fowler says a lot of this has to do with transitions at Intel and AMD. Sun has upgraded its machines to the quad-core "Barcelona" processors from AMD, which were delayed because of a bug last summer. The company is ready to plunk the "Shanghai" shrink of Barcelona into its Galaxy boxes.
Perhaps more importantly, Sun is working hard on machines using Intel's future "Nehalem" Xeon processors and their QuickPath Interconnect scheme, which is a riff on the good bits in the Opteron designs. These are expected to come to market some time in the first half of 2009.
Given the fact that x64 shipments dwarf RISC and Itanium server shipments, and Solaris 10 runs as well on x64 iron as it does on Sparc iron, you'd think Sun's Galaxy business would be many times larger than the Niagara business. But so far, it isn't. Sun is hoping that a reorganized sales unit that is being encouraged to push x64 boxes and new channels, like its partnership with CDW, America's biggest reseller, will help. Time will tell. ®