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...and then there was One

The Rise and Fall of the SPARC Workstation Market

December 17 - 2001 article by Zsolt Kerekes, editor
See also:- Marketing Views
Surviving the Solaris x86 Wars
Sun's Cache Memory Problem
History of the SPARC Notebook Market
Last Market Report on Sun Compatible OEMs?
Looking Back at 3rd Party SPARC Technology Firsts
SSDs and Sun-Oracle... past failures / future challenges
90% of enterprise SSD companies have no good reasons to survive
Zsolt Kerekes - Publisher
Zsolt Kerekes started publishing the
SPARC Product Directory in 1992.

n January 2004 I estimated the total number of SPARC processors which had been shipped in workstations (all types) and servers from the time that the SPARC market began in 1987 upto the end of 2003. I concluded that the number was around 8 million SPARC CPUs.

Contrast that with the figure of around 2 billion Intel architecture processors in the same period (for PCs, notebooks and servers) and you'll see another reason why all the 3rd party manufacturers dropped out of this market. It just wasn't big enough to sustain and nourish more than one company.
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"Just as some foods are healthier than others - so too some SSDs are better suited for particular applications" says editor Zsolt Kerekes.

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It now seems likely that the year 2000 represented the peak of the desktop SPARC workstation market, which started in 1989 with the launch of the SPARCstation 1. And I predict that, by the end of 2003, there will be only one supplier of desktop SPARC workstations left to service a market that's already declined significantly in revenue as a result of the recession in 2001, and the overlap in capability between Unix workstations and dekstop PCs. And there are no prizes for guessing that will be Sun Microsystems.

The workstation market has outlasted its usefulness, but it's interesting to see where it's been.

In the early 1990's SPARC workstations provided significant time to market benefits for a wide variety of technical developers in markets as far apart as publishing, software development and engineering.

  • SPARC processors were faster than those used in PCs or competing Unix workstations
  • Unix workstations allowed users to work with larger memory models which couldn't be accomodated on PC operating systems or (then) PC hardware busses
  • multiprocessing, appeared in SPARCstations years before PCs, and enabled users to get significant computing speedups at economic cost increments

The market was also good for wannabe SPARC workstation oems, because a typical SPARC workstation could be sold at an ASP which was an order of magnitude higher than a PC, with a cost which was only fractionally more. The profit potential in this market attracted dozens of competitors. The peak of the SPARC workstation market (number of competing oems) occurred in 1994, when oems could choose competing 32 bit SPARC chips from Sun, Ross Technology, Fujitsu Microelectronics and Weitek. In fact HAL Computer launched their own 64 bit workstation using their own design of SPARC chips, before Sun's own Ultra 1.

But Sun had several major advantages over its SPARC rivals at that time...

  • Sun controlled the operating system. The FUD factor (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) worked as well for Sun as it ever did for IBM in its glory days of the 1970's. (In the PC market, Intel's rival AMD prints an endorsement from Micosoft on its chips, to reassure users that the AMD processor will in fact run Windows.)
  • Sun had a well developed VAR friendly reseller channel.
  • and most important of all... Sun's competitors were good at designing products but mostly useless at marketing.

There isn't the same range of competing systems makers, or chip suppliers today when at the and of 2001, the competitive market for RISC workstations is vastly different.

  • PC's no longer have the same memory restrictions as in earlier generations.
  • PC's overlap SPARC workstations in performance.
  • Users have grown more sophisticated, and after 20 years of living with a PC market, user companies are no longer willing to pay much of a premium price for a RISC workstation, so the workstation "goldrush" is over.

If we take a dispassionate look at the SPARC workstation market of today, then it is no longer a driving force for technology in the computer market. That role has been taken up by the fast growing high availability rackmount server segment, which we'll return to in a future article.

In fact, if Sun were a PC company, its total annual output of desktop units, which is about the same as one day's production at Dell Computer, means that Sun wouldn't even appear as a named company in most market research reports. It would just appear in the anonymous pie chart labelled "others". This may come as a surprise to some readers who mainly rely on Sun's own web site for their news, because for most of this year we've seen a succession of announcements from Sun claiming that it's been increasing its market share in the Unix workstation market. If instead, readers had been seeing their news in the SPARC Product Directory, they would have seen through this Sun doublespeak. The "Unix" workstation market is mostly "Sun" anyway, since other Unix workstation makers have long switched switched to making Windows workstations. So when Sun has been claiming year on year market share increases, it's often in quarters when Sun's own year on year volume shipments have actually declined.

If you look at the ads in Sun focused publications, you'll probably reach the conclusion that Sun's desktop SPARC competitors have already given up the battle of promoting themselves against Sun. Most of these companies now sell systems which use Sun motherboards, and as the market share of SPARC workstations continues to decline, we're going to see just one company left standing, the company which started the whole thing back in the 1980's - Sun Microsystems as the only company left actively marketing commercial desktop SPARC workstations. There'll also be a handful of companies making workstations for specialised markets such as the military... and SPARC portables are a different market again, which haven't yet peaked, and like of the PC portable segment, are doing a lot better than their desktop cousins.

Will there still be a need for SPARC workstations in the future?

Surprisingly, I think Yes. Although most applications will surrender to the Intel architecture PC, there are two types of application for which SPARC workstations will continue to be needed for many years.

  • semiconductor design - which used to be the prerogative of a handful of major oems in the 1970s, is now used as a tool by thousands of companies and is accessible even to the smallest startup company. SPARC workstations still provide the raw horsepower for much of the Electronic Design Automation market, and there seems no compelling reason for current models written around the SPARC/Solaris platform to be rewritten for other targets. In the early days of the SPARCstation market, Sun's workstations could even be seen in the chip design cubicles at Intel Corp. (Do they still use Sun now? Well I don't get out so much nowadays, so maybe a kind reader could fill me in here and let everyone know...)
  • software design - as long as the SPARC server market continues to be a major segment in the server market. there will be productivity advantages for some software developers to use a compatible development platform. Also from the personnel point of view, it's easier for companies to train new software people to become conversant with one target platform and use the same platform for development, especially when there's an ever present shortage of skilled software developers.

Conclusion... As far back as the mid 1990's I was telling many of Sun's new partners that the workstation was no longer a critical factor in the SPARC market. It had long been overtaken in strategic significance by Sun's server business. I believe we've now seen the peak of the desktop SPARC workstation market, and that while volume shipments may rise in the next few years, they will recover at a slower rate than the PC market as a whole. We can look across to the Apple Mac market to see that some users still prefer alternatives to the Wintel PC in specialised vertical markets. That's even more true in SPARC, which is based around synergy with a strong server business.

So as long as Sun keeps bringing out new workstation models, there will be users who want to buy them, but it's likely that most of Sun's desktop SPARC competitors today will either withdraw from that market, or just become Sun resellers.


SPARC(R) is a registered trademark of SPARC International, Inc. SPARC PRODUCT DIRECTORY(SM) is a service mark of SPARC International, Inc used under license by ACSL. Products using the SPARC trademarks are based on an architecture developed by Sun Microsystems, Inc.