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View from the Hill
How Long Can Sun Stand the Heat in the Server Benchmark Wars?
July 1, 2002 article by Zsolt Kerekes
See also:- Surviving the Solaris x86 Wars
Where have all the Sun User Groups Gone?
Top #10 Most Important SPARC Systems Companies
Looking Back at 3rd Party SPARC Technology Firsts
Zsolt Kerekes - Publisher
Zsolt Kerekes is editor and publisher
of the SPARC Product Directory and
legacy Tatung banner from the SPD in 1999
This summer the pressure from Sun's competitors will start to mount, as long as Sun is still saddled with its one year old vintage 900MHz processors (and low volume selected 1,050MHz variants). Although the processor benchmark wars have been a regular event throughout SPARC's 15 year history, Sun's economic and technical woes last year caused it to slip behind its main competitors with an interim processor which was far below the expectations predicted by Moore's law. Although Sun has publicly stated that it continued investments into new chip designs, its economics are vastly different here to rival Intel, which despite the recession in the PC market, is planning around a market estimated to be as large as another one billion PCs during the next 6 years. That allows Intel to get a payback on interim clock speed products much earlier than Sun.

On July 1st, HP announced that their 64-way HP Superdome server with the newly announced PA-8700+ processor secured the world's best SPECjbb200 result submitted to date, scoring 614,538 Java applications per second and beating a 104-way Sun Starfire 15K. But more pressure on Sun will soon be coming from HP.

In June, HP (not known for its speed at writing operating system software) announced that it would assign to Red Hat the task of sourcing a Linux for HP servers and workstations based on the forthcoming Intel® Itanium® 2 processor. HP's claim to fame with this processor is that it co-developed with Intel, the Itanium instruction set architecture. That was part of a deal which involved HP dropping the ongoing development of its own PA based processors. However, it's fair to say that HP's processor chip developments in the past have probably scared its own accountants and shareholders more than they scared competitors like Sun. And the face saving "co-development" with Intel would have been more significant in technology terms, if HP had been tasked with the mission of choosing the color of the chips new package. Nevertheless, when the new Intel processor comes out, HP will be able to significantly outperform Sun in the benchmark stakes.

The threat from any Microsoft operating systems in the 64 bit server space are more muted... In November 2001, Dell and MigraTEC announced a technology and services referral agreement that will aid Dell customers moving their mission-critical computing operations to the 64-bit Intel® Itanium computing platform. MigraTEC products automate many of the required tasks associated with moving applications from 32-bit to 64-bit platforms and from Solaris® and other Unix operating systems to Microsoft® Windows and Linux® . Although Sun's CEO, Scott McNealy publicly claims to disregard Dell as a competitor, he is in a minority of one in this regard. And Dell's moves have to be watched carefully. However, since Sun cut off Dell's future access to its own X86 based Solaris, the Texas based company will have to make do with other operating systems to take advantage of the new 64 bit Intel platforms.

Intel is not the only threat however. In June IBM announced an entry level 4 processor server, the eServer p630, designed to run Linux and the AIX 5L operating system that offers 84% greater performance than Sun's 900MHz SPARC based V480. IBM plans to introduce dynamic LPAR capability in the fourth quarter, enabling customers to divide the machine into up to four "virtual" servers. These systems, which can be as small as a single processor, can dynamically change in size to accommodate shifting workloads.

The IBM eServer p630 is the fastest four-way Web secure server, according to the rigorous SPECweb99_SSL benchmark. The SPECweb99_SSL measures a server's ability to support a given number of secure Web users while maintaining certain performance requirements. The p630 supported 1,050 simultaneous connections, far outpacing the 568 simultaneous connections achieved by the four-way Sun V480.

Where Does this Leave Sun?

Sun sales people will have to take a certain amount of flack from competitive benchmarks which will show up Sun's weaknesses in an unfavorable light. In the short term they can counter with the rejoinder that the competitor's products are "new" and "unproven" whereas Sun's boxes have been shipping in volume for some time. By the fall however, Sun will only retain credibility by announcing one or both of the following.
  • Sun's own Linux boxes for the Itanium processor, either homegrown, or more likely, using code licensed from other Linux sources.
  • A faster SPARC processor, probably running at 1.5GHz, as an immediate upgrade thoughout the current server line. New servers using these chips will almost certainly offer solid state disks as a preconfigured Sun orderable acceleration option, which will boost system performance by about 30% over the clock speed.
However, following the cache memory problems which Sun experienced in 2001, the speed of market take up for any new faster SPARC servers may depend as much on smooth talking as well as cool technology

Sun Acquisition May Help Put the Sparkle Back into Sun's SPARC Processors
Editor:- July 23, 2002 in a press release today from Sun Microsystems, the company announced that it has acquired Afara Websystems, Inc., a company that develops next-generation, SPARC®-based microprocessor technology focused on delivering breakthrough levels of processor performance.

Sun's own processor products are one to two years behind the performance curve which Sun led users and partners to expect from its SPARC processors. That's one of the factors which has led to the company's poor financial performance during the last year. Without providing the high performance which Sun users came to expect during the 1990's, Sun would be well on its way to becoming a $10 billion or smaller company, compared to its peak of $18 billion.

Afara is a small design company which has been working on high performance SPARC processor designs. According to an article in The Register, one of Afara's co-founders is Les Kohn, who worked on Intel's highly successful embedded RISC processor, the i860 and i960 and also on Sun's own UltraSPARC-I.
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this way to the Petabyte SSD
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