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the Top #10 Most Important SPARC Companies - measured by reader pageviews - 2002

based on a sample size of over 125,000 SPARC Product Directory readers in Q2 2002

July 19, 2002 article by Zsolt Kerekes - editor/publisher
See also:- click here to see the current version of this article
article:- Sun and its SPARC IHVs - Paint it Black? or Not Fade Away? (published 2005)
article:- Sun, SPARC and Solaris Highlights and Lowlights in 2004
article:- Surviving the Solaris x86 Wars
article:- the Benefits of SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) for External Subsystems
more articles, SPARC News, STORAGE News, Market research, SPARC History, Notebooks - SPARC
Editor's intro:- If you've ever been on a ship at sea during a storm, you'll know that the geographical phrase "at sea level" can be very misleading. When the waves are 50 feet high it's better to be aboard a large ship rather than a dinky sailboat. Also if you live on the coast, you'll know that the water does not always stay where the line is drawn on the maps.

It's equally wrong to think of the "SPARC market" during this IT recession as a single market. It might look like that from a distance. But there's always been a lot of movement within particular market segments. Some up. Some down. Our reader logs can track that activity in real time and can also be predictive of trends which matter.

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The SPARC Product Directory has been used by buyers, pre-sales support people, systems integrators and marketers since 1992. It currently links to about 700 companies focused on selling SPARC compatible hardware. It also includes another 3,000 or so external links to other other types of companies which provide services, software or market information which might be of interest to our readers. But which are the ones which really matter?

Using a sample size of over 125,000 SPARC Product Directory readers I analyzed pagviews on company profiles in the period leading up to the end of Sun's 4th quarter (ending June 30) to see what our readers have been looking at, and to try and understand why. I hope you find this a useful insight into what our readers think matters in the world of SPARC. There was no difference in the ranking caused by extending the sample size upwards or backwards in time another month.
Rank Company
1 Tadpole
2 Rave Computer
3 Force Computers
4 Antares Microsystems
5 Sun Microsystems
6 Solar Systems & Peripherals
7 Computer Connection
8 Continuous Computing
9 Naturetech
10 Data Storage Depot
11 I-Bus/Phoenix
For a detailed commentary on each company and their ranking, please scroll down your screen to read the full article and analysis.

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Rank Editor's Comments (unless indicated otherwise)
1 Tadpole

"We're delighted with this recognition of the Tadpole brand and the company's relationship with Sun Microsystems' and its technologies," says Graham Brown, president of Tadpole's portable UNIX and server businesses. "Tadpole is focused on extending the enterprise applications of UltraSPARC and Solaris technologies as complementary solutions to those of Sun Microsystems', and in applying its expertise developed over many years to increasingly complex and challenging applications of the SPARC business-critical platform."

Editor:- If you look at Tadpole today, knowing nothing about its history, you may be tempted to think it's a shiny new company which just got lucky. But luck had nothing to do with top billing in our reader interest rated feature.

The smiths of old knew that to make a sword of iron which would both keep its blade sharp, but would not be easily broken in battle, it would have to be forged first in a red hot fire and beaten with a hammer. Then while the metal was still glowing it should be quenched in cold water. Analysts who've followed Tadpole would probably say they've been through that process, and that's why they look so good today.

I first came across Tadpole as a user in the 1980's when they made a VMEbus card for one of the first RISC chips, the transputer from Inmos. They reappeared in my radar in the 1992 edition of the SPARC Product Directory, with their SPARCbook, the world's first SPARC portable.

Then for several years the company seemed to go through a difficult period, first seeing off Sun's own unsuccessful foray into SPARC portables, and then having to meet with competition from another SPARC portable maker called RDI Computer. In the mid 1990's Tadpole diversified its portable family into other architectures including HP's PA RISC and then Intel. That's when the company got roasted and I wondered if it would survive. They looked like a classical technology company which was weak in marketing. They were stretched too thin in markets which looked similar from the technology point of view, but which had non overlapping VAR channels and customers.

There were a lot of changes in the company's marketing personnel at that time. Quickly the company dropped its Intel notebooks, and admitted that the Sun market was where it had to be successful. Competition for SPARC portables came from many sources. In addition to RDI's SPARC challenge, there were VARs selling preloaded Solaris X86 portables which nibbled away at some low end applications Also the early generations of Sun's SPARCstations like the IPX were physically as small as a portable and could be used as low cost luggables. Was the market really big enough to support all these ways of solving the same problem? The answer at the time was no. But then Tadpole seemed to change and start talking more about marketing. Sun's workstations got faster and bigger, and could no longer be used as luggables. That still left RDI...

In October, 1998 Tadpole acquired RDI and the best products from each company were retained. But was that really a big enough market? In November 2000 Tadpole acquired Cycle Computer, the leading supplier of motherboard upgrades for SPARC workstations, and an emerging supplier of rackmount SPARC systems. I thought that was very significant and wrote an article about it at the time.

The portable computer market for all architectures grew last year (both Wintel and SPARC). More recently Sun's announcement that it was dumping Solaris X86 may have driven a few more customers in the direction of SPARC notebooks, because the cheaper alternatives were now a dead end. Also the rackmount segment showed 50% growth rates all through the recession of 2001, unlike the traditional server segments which were flat or declined. The thermal packaging technology which can pack a workstation into a notebook, also works well in the military area, a market which is currently growing. The same goes for appliances. So Tadpole's hardware business is engaged in several high growth, high margin market segments. That's why they're #1.

2 Rave Computer

"Our business model is leveraging our IT knowledge and best of breed vendors to devise optimal UltraSPARC solutions. Many of our solutions have been deployed in various industries including medical, government, military and advanced manufacturing. The typical deployment ranges from high performance digital imaging, high-density appliances and compute-intensive network communications," states Frederick Darter, President/CEO for Rave Computer, "Our success has been founded on our ability to provide solutions, customer service and long term relationships."

Editor:- Founded in 1988 Rave Computer began by refurbishing and reselling computer systems. Shortly thereafter, Rave became closely aligned with Sun Microsystems and other strategic partners to provide system solutions to solve specific needs that the standard OEM products cannot fulfill. In the 1990's Rave made and marketed its own brand of SPARC workstations and deskside server.

Within the SPARC market today Rave operates both as a distributor of products from companies like Naturetech and also an integrator of rackmount SPARC systems using Sun technology for markets which need different packaging and customisation than offered by Sun's own servers.

Rave also manufactures and distributes storage products such as Qualstar tape libraries, Nexsan disk to disk backup, Dataram. Rave's ARES brand of fault tolerant backup and recovery system incorporates an embedded server using Sun's UltraSPARC processor and Solaris ™ operating environment. Rave also makes RAID, JBOD and SAN products. (However, within the scope of this top 10 SPARC listing, we have disregarded pageviews for storage entries which appear on our sister publication STORAGEsearch.com.)

3 Force Computers

Daniel Wuhrer, Product Marketing Manager at Force Computers said "The SPARC products from Force Computers provide state-of-the-art processors in a flexible form factor to reduce time-to-market and shave development costs. Our SBCs are based on UltraSPARC-IIe technology and provide PICMG 2.16 compliance as well as PICMG2.9. The successful UltraSPARC-based single-board computers from Force Computers are excellent solutions for customer's demanding applications by providing high performance and reliability at atractive price."

Editor:- Force Computers is the world's largest supplier of compactPCI cards and is a leading supplier of high availability SPARC servers and cards to the telecoms and military industries. Its Centellis brand of high availability rackmount SPARC servers provides "5 nines" reliability and NEBs compliance in form factors starting from 3U upwards.
  • 1990 - an agreement with Sun Microsystems leads to Force becoming an alternative source for Sun's SPARCengine-1E, a 6U VME SPARC SBC, marketed as the Force CPU-1. Force later went on to develop many generations of SPARC SBCs on VME which included expansion via SBus slots and later, PMC.
  • 1997 - Force ships the industry's first SPARC SBC in compactPCI
  • January 2002 - Dy 4 Systems, a leader in ruggedized embedded computing products for the defense and aerospace markets, becomes a business unit of Force Computers
In the early 1990's before the web, it was difficult for systems integrators and end users of embedded systems to locate reliable information about add in cards for SPARC systems. During that time Force Computers actively promoted this directory to its customer base, and Force still does so today, which is very helpful in getting a wider readership within the embedded SPARC market.

4 Antares Microsystems

Antares Microsystems was the first independent company to announce add-in SBus cards for Sun's SPARCstation 1 (in December 1989). That set off a wave of (eventually) more than 150 other SBus manufacturers entering the market. That wave also triggered the founding of this publisher, ACSL, and the first edition of the SBus Product Directory in 1992, later renamed to the SPARC Product Directory in 1996, when PCI cards started to find their way into SPARC systems. Antares took out an ad on the front cover of the 1996 editions which ran in parallel with the SPARC directory web site.

During most of the 1990's there were dozens of companies which entered the market for Sun compatible add-in cards such as network interfaces, serial I/O, graphics etc and it was a confusing market. Few companies stayed the distance. Antares was one of those, and in recent years the company has branched out to support other server flavors in the Linux, AIX and Microsoft OS markets.

In Q1 2001, Antares was acquired by a consumer storage enclosure manufacturer and distributor called InClose Design. That got wide publicity. ...What is less well known, is that because the markets serviced by the two companies were so different, they amicably agreed to demerge not long after.

In Q2 2002, Antares started laying the foundations for its growth as an independent company again. As part of that process it appointed TidalWire Inc to be the exclusive distributor handling hundreds of Antares VARs in the US.

Future product plans from the company include products in the TCP/IP acceleration area based on Antares patent pending technology. When used with on board Compression/Decompression and Encryption capabilities these products will likely make a big contribution to Sun server performance in the iSCSI and FCIP application areas.

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5 Sun Microsystems

Sun was consistently the #1 ranked company in our web logfiles from 1996 through to the year 2000. But June 2001 was the last time that happened.

Why the pivotal change in June 2001? There are many possible reasons.

In May 2001, Sun's success story was already rapidly unravelling as discussed in my article Time for changes at the top in Sun?.

June 2001 was also the month Sun announced their cost saving shutdown, which might have dented confidence in their wider customer base (not just our readers). However, that linkage only looks clear now with the benefit of hindsight. .

Why the seismic downshift from #1 to #5 in the last 12 months?

Our analysis suggests that most SPARC readers today, are less inclined to view Sun as a technology leader, than they have been in times past. Possible reasons for this may be:-
  • Sun is not perceived as the market leader in many segments within the SPARC market which are still growing despite the IT recession, such as SPARC portables, embedded systems, add-in cards, storage etc. Our reader activity is always higher in growing emerging product segments than in static or declining ones. Although Sun supplies the raw technology for many of these growth segments, solutions based on those technologies are more readily accessible to users via integrators, IHVs and VARs rather than directly from Sun. Sun's financial results would in fact be much worse if Sun had not set up those long term relationships and opened up its technical interfaces and product licenses.
  • Sun's rate of change in introducing new processor technology has slowed down compared to previous years, and is starting to lag rather than lead competition from Intel, HP, IBM etc. That public perception means users have less to lose by not following up on news stories or directory links about Sun, compared to the time that Sun was setting the pace for the whole computer industry.
I've discussed these problems and possible remedies in many articles during the last few years. Sun has been addressing these problems, but it's a race against time, like always. The twenty year old company like many of us, has put on weight and can't move quite as fast as it used to.

6 Solar Systems & Peripherals

Solar based in Preston, Washington, was incorporated in 1990 and is a reseller of previously owned Sun hardware both used and unused.

This week the company has completed a major overhaul of its web site.

7 Computer Connection

Computer Connection of Central New York (CCNY) has been supplying Sun users for nearly 15 years. CCNY was named in VarBusiness Magazine's ranking of the top 500 VARs, Integrators, and IT Consultants located in North America in 1999 and 2000.

8 Continuous Computing

"As the leading provider of high-availability, network-ready compute platforms for telecom equipment manufacturers, Continuous Computing is delighted to be in the top 10 list of such an important publication," said Ken Kalb, CEO, Continuous Computing Corporation.

Editor:- Continuous Computing Corporation, established in 1998 with headquarters in San Diego, is a leading provider of high-availability platform solutions for telecom equipment manufacturers and service providers. Their SPARC products include servers, modules and uniquely, their upsuite HA middleware, which has been licensed for use by other HA suppliers including I-Bus/Phoenix in Europe.

In February 2002 - Continuous Computing announced the first product in its SPARCblade™ processor board family. The SPARCblade IIe-500 processor board is a hot-swappable, PICMG 2.16-compliant compactPCI single board computer

High availability is a fast growing segment for all architectures. But the blade market also has good prosepcts. In February 2002 a market report from Dataquest said that worldwide blade server shipments would grow from 84,810 units in 2002 to more than 1 million by 2006. They also said that blades which followed open industry standards (such as cPCI) would have a better adoption rate in the market than blade products which used new or proprietary form factors and interfaces.

Dataquest defined a blade as follows. "A blade server is a server contained on a card. Rather than installing servers one chassis at a time into a rack cabinet as is most common today, with blade servers, network administrators can install a server card (or blade) into a chassis that has multiple slots to hold these server cards."

9 Naturetech

Taiwan based Naturetech was founded in 1998 and manufactures the Ultra-NoteStation 777S, a Solaris Compatible notebook based on Sun's UltraSPARC IIe microprocessor.

The company has been very fast at setting up distribution channels for these SPARC portables both in the US (where Rave Computer is one of about four US distributors) and in Europe. In liitle over a year since shipping their first SPARC product it's amazing that Naturetech has already made an impact on user awareness and leapt straight into this top 10 list. The market for SPARC portables in 2002/3 is much bigger than it was a decade ago, and shows indications that it will keep growing.

10 Data Storage Depot

Data Storage Depot based in Bethel, Connecticut is a leading supplier of new Disk, Memory, RAID, NAS and Tape products for Sun workstations and servers. The company was incorporated April 1991 and was originally named Dynamic Computer Products. It's a Master Reseller for Dataram.

The IT recession meant that 2001 was a bad year for all memory manufacturers, but not necessarily so for memory resellers. That's because when IT budgets are squeezed, end users are more likely to look at alternative suppliers for memory. Low cost suppliers benefit when users switch away from buying technically identical products at a higher price from server OEMs like Sun. If the reseller offers good service, then the user won't switch back to paying twice as much when their budgets come back.

Memory market analyst Semico Research Corp believes that a recovery in DRAM ASPs and revenues has already begun and in April forecasted that 2002 will be a strong year for DRAM. In fact, Semico forecasts a 43% growth in DRAM revenues in 2002.

11 I-Bus/Phoenix

I-Bus/Phoenix (in Europe) is a specialist manufacturer and integrator of enclosures and high tech rack mounted servers for embedded applications in utilities, telecommunications, broadcast, medical equipment industrial automation, packaging and transportation. The company builds high availability SPARC based platforms using Sun boards and licensing HA middleware from Continuous Computing.

In June 2002 reorganized their European operations improve service and delivery to customers. To achieve this, the UK company relocated to larger purpose built premises in Tangmere, West Sussex. As the new European headquarters, this serves the French, German and Scandinavian offices with centralised facilities for integration, warehousing, distribution, technical support and QA backup for all major products lines.

In July 2002 I-Bus/Phoenix launched the nFUZION-8U/CHS a high density compactPCI Ultra SPARC IIe NEBS platform for computer farms. The new system can incorporate upto 16 SPARC servers in as little as 8U of rack space.

Footnote:- why 11 companies, and not just 10? Well you already guessed that Sun was going to be one of the top 10, and I like to pack in as much useful information as I can. That's all...
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Where's Fujitsu?

Fujitsu, which designs and manufactures its own SPARC chips, doesn't appear in the top 10 list. Fujitsu is ranked #36.

Unfortunately the company, which is widely acknowledged as a supplier of technically excellent products, is weak at marketing.

Within the SPARC systems segment alone the company has created and then killed or stealth marketed brands more often that Buffy the vampire slayer has saved the world from armaggedon. Fujitsu's SPARC systems companies and brands have included:- HAL Computer, turboSPARC, ICL, Amdahl, Fujitsu Siemens (in Europe), Fujitsu Technology Solutions (in the US) etc.

Marketing managers who have worked in the company or closely in partnership with their marketing department privately admit that Fujitsu's marketing is stellar in its blandness, poor targeting and failure to effectively compete with its more adroit SPARC technology partner and competitor Sun. As a result, Fujitsu, whose high end servers did not suffer from Sun's unfortunate cache memory problems in 2001, failed to capitalise on this. Instead of winning market share from Sun, the company left it to others to point out that there might be some advantages in switching to their servers. In the meantime IBM sold more mainframes to nervous Sun customers, and Sun patched up the problem. Given that background, being #36 isn't too bad. In fact being ranked in the top 50 is an improvement for Fujitsu compared with previous years.
research would have come in useful here
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Market research can help you avoid going down a dead end track.
Where's Your Own Company?

If you work in sales or marketing and your own company is a manufacturer, VAR or other hardware technology supplier related to the SPARC systems market in the US or Europe, then you may be interested to know where you rank on a scale which stretches from 12 to about 700.

Send me an email, and I'll look up the results and get back to you with an answer. I get thousands of emails every week and prioritise those related to news and other content. But I will reply to at least one request from any company which has a genuine interest in this subject. It may take anything from a few days to a few weeks. But it may give you a clearer idea of what you can do to increase your visibility in this important market segment.

For example you may not want the world to know that you're currently losted 293. And I'm not going to publish that information to embarrass you. But if you think you should be nearer 75, say, then the feedback I give you will help you realise there's a gap between where you would like to be, and where the market actually views your company. Then it's up to you to do something about it, or not.
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