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Sun's Speedy New Servers Challenge Its Legacy

Struggling computer maker Sun Microsystems this week took more steps to rectify a years-long problem: what to sell to customers that don't want RISC. Sun unveiled three servers based on Advanced Micro Device's popular Opteron chip that set eight new records on benchmark tests. That's a compelling argument to buy industry-standard servers from Sun.

But the world-beating numbers raise another question. As Sun's commodity hardware closes the performance gap with systems based on Sun's tried-and-true Sparc processors, how does Sun differentiate its mainstay business?

"Sparc hasn't exactly been the exemplar of high-performance RISC processing over the past couple of years," says Gordon Haff, an analyst with research company Illuminata. Compared with the performance of IBM's Power chips, Sparc's processing capabilities have been slow, he says. Meanwhile, Sun servers that use Opteron continue to make performance gains.

Sun's new Sun Fire X4600 server, which can house up to eight dual-core Opterons, outperformed all other systems on a benchmark test of high-performance technical computing run by the Standard Performance Evaluation Corp., an industry group. That eclipsed results by a comparable Sun Sparc system, even after accounting for differences in the chips' clock speeds. The X4600 also beat all other systems running x86 chips with 64-bit extensions (generally referred to as x64) on a SPEC test of database processing. Sun's new Blade 8000 system also set a record on a test of Java middleware performance for systems that use x86 chips by spitting out 121,228 operations per second. The $20,000 blade server did that with four dual-core Opteron chips. By comparison, Sun's largest Sparc server, the mammoth E25K, outfitted with 72 RISC chips and a price of $3.5 million, crunched about 1.2 million operations a second. Efficiency edge: AMD.

Servers that use Opteron are "catching up very quickly in raw performance terms" to Sparc systems, says Graham Lovell, senior marketing director for x64 systems at Sun. RISC isn't standing still, he notes. Sun and IBM are adding more multithreading capabilities to their respective Sparc and Power chips. And Sun's new Sparc Niagara chip managed 74,365 SPEC supply-chain ops per second by packing eight cores onto a single chip. Business customers that buy big Unix iron from Sun also want features like partitioned hardware that lets them isolate apps for reliability and security reasons, Lovell says.

Revenues from sales of AMD-based computers rose 7.6% during Sun's third quarter, ended March 26. "The growth of our x64 business has been absolutely astounding," Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz said at a press conference in San Francisco on July 11. The new chief executive has shown he can make tough calls: Sun last month said it would cut 4,000 to 5,000 jobs to reduce costs. Still, Schwartz probably isn't ready to put Sparc out to pasture just yet. During Sun's last fiscal year, Opteron-based systems accounted for just 3% of Sun's $11 billion in revenue. And Sun still has a large base of customers running Sun's Solaris operating system on Sparc-based servers and workstations that won't rewrite their apps for another platform. Says analyst Haff, "Software lives forever."