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Sun SPARC Solaris Highlights and Lowlights in 2004

by Zsolt Kerekes editor SPARC Product Directory - December 17, 2004
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2004 saw the end of the delayed end of the recession in the SPARC market which had started in 2001. Most analysts had written off Sun and the SPARC market - so when I wrote an article in April predicting that Sun's revenue would start growing again in the 2nd calendar quarter - I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness. Other IT editors and analysts who talk to me from time to time for in depth SPARC market comments were surprised - but held off from another round of Sun kicking articles for a few months till Sun's results confirmed this.

Although Sun's results from the 3rd quarter of calendar 2004 won't be reported till a month after this article is published - I expect them to confirm that the last 3 quarters in 2004 taken together will continue showing year on revenue growth. Also I expect that during 2005 - Sun's own revenue and that of the SPARC market will pick up growth to around 10%.

It didn't feel like much of a recovery to most US Sun VARs. Authorized VARs were squeezed into ever smaller niches as Sun seemed to take more direct business.

Suffering most in the US Sun market in 2004 were the gray VARs who were impacted by Sun's new Solaris licensing policies affecting remarketed Sun servers and Sun's third party maintenance schemes. The total number of Sun VARs in the US declined again by 10% in 2004 as companies went bust or quit the Sun business altogether. Many of the long time Sun VARs I spoke to were bitter about their experiences in the Sun market. And I got the impression that Sun's thrashing around with no clear Linux strategy and a poor SPARC performance upgrade path was a source of disbelief and frustration. How could a company this size be so stupid?

One experienced Sun analyst commented - "Sun has a track record of screwing its partners. Yet despite that VARs, IHVs and ISVs rush to follow the latest Sun bandwaggon in the hope it will lead somewhere better. You would think they would know by now that even Sun doesn't know or control where it's going."

In Europe the situation for the gray Sun market was a lot better. Two factors accounted for the different experience.
  • EU anti-trust laws are tougher on IT companies than in the US. The tight controls on VAR channels and related service issues which Sun tries to maintain in the US would be illegal in Europe - so it's a gray market free for all.
  • The slide in value of the dollar compared to the two main European currencies - the Euro and Pound created very competitive pricing opportunites for gray VARs as product prices kept dropping unbelievably lower.
The gap in performance between low GigaHertz SPARC and high GigaHertz Intel Architecture processors - which had contributed to Sun's 60% revenue decline since 2000 - got some bandaid fixes in 2004 with 3 main announcements.
  • Sun confirmed that new faster SPARC processors would be coming soon. Not from the tainted stable which had blundered by over reliance on simulation rather than hard electronics expertise and tossed away Sun's reputation for reliability by leaving its processors open to Alpha particle induced crashes in 2001. And not from the 2002 acquisition of Afara Websystems, Inc., a company that was developing next-generation, SPARC microprocessor technology. Instead the new faster SPARC chips would be coming from Fujitsu, who were already shipping them in their own Primeservers. Better still - Sun and Fujitsu confirmed they would merge their high end SPARC product lines - which we told readers about in October 2003.
  • Sun's long awaited SPARC IV processors started shipping in 2004. The initial products clocked at exactly the same speed as the old SPARC III's. But with 2 processors inside each chip - Sun's new term for this was "throughput computing" - users effectively got twice the performance for many applications. This was good business for Sun who were able to publish benchmarks trashing many of their rivals. It also meant that Sun could revamp old server lines. The new chips had the same footprint as the old ones. Although similar products appeared in the Intel Architecture market later in 2004 - it looked unlikely that they would ge supported properly by Microsoft or Linux for at least another year.
  • In November Sun announced an OS led SPARC performance tweak. According to Sun's internal benchmarks, customers who upgraded to Solaris 10 OS on their UltraSPARC systems could benefit from a 47% to 73% increase in Web Server performance from the Solaris 9 and Solaris 8 OS, respectively.
In 2004 there was an another series of the long running comedy "the x86 Solaris Saga". In a series end twist - Sun announced that it would make Solaris 10 open source. This move was aimed to lure users away from the Linux camp. By year end there was no real evidence that Sun had doen anything more substantial than issue a few press releases and talk about this subject in interviews.

Fans of this saga will have to wait till the next series in 2005 - and should not be overly surprised if the first episode starts with Jonathan Schwartz waking up and saying that the open source statements were all "Just a dream." That's more likely to happen if Sun thinks it will get double digit revenue growth in 2005/6 anyway with its proprietary approach. For fans who were too young to see the early episodes of the x86 Solaris Saga we've got a brief history of the first 18 years in article:- Surviving the Solaris x86 Wars..

...Later after publication of this article - The Register also took up the Sun dream theme in their spoof article Scott McNealy's Xmas dream.

Pick of the Sun SPARC Solaris News Stories in 2004

January 2004 - 2004 was a breakthrough year for the SPARC notebook market. SPARC notebooks, mostly used by the military and government markets, had previously been priced out of reach of most commercial users's budgets with typical costs being many times that for a desktop workstation. In 2004 we saw a sharp trend of price onvergence between SPARC notebooks and Intel Architecture notebooks. By dropping prices - manufacturers hoped to substantially increase the total market size. New models and new VARs made notebooks one of the most dynamic segments in the SPARC desktop market.

NextCom LLC announced the first sub $2,000 UltraSPARC 64 bit Solaris Notebook and mobile server. A $1,995 priced configuration included a 14.1" high resolution TFT display and UltraSPARC IIe 400MHz RISC processor.

February 2004- High end Sun SPARC users in the military and financial markets - who had got tired of waiting for faster SPARC processors had been turning their attention to solid state disks. SSDs gave users application speedups of x2 to x 3 in the same way as the unavailable faster SPARC chips.

Texas Memory Systems, Inc . announced that the RamSan-320 solid state disk has completed Sun Microsystems' Solaris Ready certification. Later in the year Sun UK became a reseller of this product.

With the US and British liberation of Iraq stretching into a long term occupation - the military SPARC market continued its strong demand for products.

TAG released its new 2U 2000S-SF rugged server designed for warfighters running UNIX applications in combat situations. Unlike many other servers that are based on the Ultra SPARC IIIi processor, the 2000S-SF's standard configuration provides a full array of peripherals in a compact 2U 21.5" deep, rugged chassis. TAG's patented and proven cooling technology enables the server to operate at temperatures of 60 °C.

March 2004

NatureTech launched the Proso 2000, a 64-bit IIIi dual processor-capable portable solution with 15" UXGA TFT panel (1600 by 1200), up to two 1.28GHz UltraSPARC IIIi processors. This was aimed at the Homeland Security market, which had been a strong market for SPARC vendors since its inception.

2004 was also notable for some things which didn't happen. Many analysts had predicted that Sun and other server makers would be shipping InfiniBand clustered servers in volume. Instead the InfiniBand market remained small and almost ignored. One reason was that main server companies were hanging on as long as possible to their more profitable proprietary interconnects, and the recession had stymied the threat from potential startup server makers. Another reason was that conventional technologies were getting faster - and in the minds of many users - might make the need for InfiniBand irrelevant.

Precision I/O, Inc. raised $10 million in venture funding to bring to market a new high-performance server I/O architecture based on Ethernet. The company's products, to be introduced beginning in mid-2004, will open up the server-to-network bottleneck that has plagued enterprises in their efforts to bring the benefits of high-speed networking to data-center and high-performance computing applications. Precision I/O products will be implemented initially as software solutions that support network speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, and later as hardware/software solutions that support wire-rate processing of 10 Gbps.

April 2004 - after years of delays - Sun finally launched a new processor range.

Sun Microsystems, Inc. shipped the first of its mid-range UltraSPARC IV processor-based throughput computing systems, the Sun Fire E4900 and E6900 server systems.

In 2004 Sun signed a record number of agreements to OEM storage technology from other companies, in effect admitting that its earlier strategy of developing internally developed storage products had failed to win enough users.

Procom Technology, Inc. signed a multi-year agreement with Sun Microsystems, Inc. under which Sun may license certain Procom technologies related to the NAS market.

May 2004

BiTMICRO Networks announced the successful acquisition of Solaris Ready certification from Sun Microsystems on both SPARC and x86 platforms for its 3.5" Fibre Channel, IDE / ATA and SCSI Wide solid state disks.

Gigaram, announced a new line of Sun Licensed memory upgrades: 2GB memory upgrade for the new Sun Fire B100X Blade, 1GB through 4GB upgrades for the Sun Fire V20Z & the 1GB through 8GB upgrades for the Sun Fire E2900, E4900, E6900, E20K & E25K.

June 2004

Fujitsu announced enhancements to its 5th generation SPARC64 processor. The Fujitsu SPARC64 V processor is fabricated using 90-nanometer process technology and operates at 1.89 GHz.

Sun and Fujitsu confirmed they will bring together their Solaris and SPARC-based server product lines by mid-2006. When complete, the new product line will replace Sun's and Fujitsu's existing Sun Fire and PRIMEPOWER product lines, respectively. Customers will benefit from safe and seamless binary compatibility along the SPARC roadmap.

StorageTek announced a strategic OEM partnership agreement with Sun Microsystems. Under the agreement, Sun will market and sell StorageTek's StreamLine SL8500 under the StorEdge brand, as well as StorageTek's L-700e and L-180 tape libraries.

July 2004 - after 3 years of declining revenues - Sun finally started the process of recovery. As we'd find out in later quarters - this was more than just an example of dead cat bounce.

Sun Microsystems, Inc. reported results today for its fiscal fourth quarter and full fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2004. Revenues for the fourth quarter grew to $3.110 billion, an increase of 4.3% as compared with $2.982 billion for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2003.

AMD announced that the AMD Opteron processor will power the 4P Sun Fire V40z server as well as the 1P Sun Java workstation W1100z and 2P Sun Java workstation W2100z, the latest in a family of AMD Opteron processor-based products from Sun Microsystems. Sun hyped up its AMD based server line - but all externally available market data suggested that Sun's progress in the Linux market was little more than a fleabite of market share.

August 2004

S2io, Inc. announced that drivers for its Xframe 10 Gigabit Ethernet Adapter will be integrated into Sun Microsystems, Inc.'s Solaris for SPARC, AMD Opteron and Intel Xeon based systems. In addition, S2io will be working with Sun to deliver a TCP/IP offload engine with RDMA functionality to enhance performance and scalability in intense compute/server environments.

September 2004

Sun Microsystems introduced two new Solaris powered UltraSPARC IV servers-the Sun Fire V490 and Sun Fire V890. The Sun Fire V490 and Sun Fire V890 servers have set world-record benchmarks for sub-$50K platforms, outperforming equivalent systems from HP and IBM in the 4- and 8-way space.

October 2004

Engenio Information Technologies, Inc. announced that it has broadened its OEM agreement with Sun Microsystems, Inc. Engenio will provide Sun with new modular storage technology and will co-develop future Sun storage products. The first Sun product to emerge through the new arrangement, the Sun StorEdge 6130 array, was launched.

EqualLogic, Inc. today announced an agreement with Sun Microsystems to resell the iSCSI compatible PeerStorage Array 100E. 2004 was another dismal year for the overhyped iSCSI market. The main reasons for the slow adoption of iSCSI by users were discussed in an article on

Sun Microsystems, Inc. reported results for its fiscal first quarter, which ended September 26, 2004. Revenues for the first quarter grew to $2.628 billion, an increase of 3.6% as compared with $2.536 billion for the first quarter of fiscal 2004. This proved that the growth reported in the previous quarter was more than a flash in the pan.

November 2004

Deep Nines Inc. announced that Sun Microsystems has become a reseller of the DeepNines Security Edge Platform. By 2004 security had become the last bastion in which Sun's products retained plausible superiority to Windows based servers, having earlier lost the crowns for highest performance and reliability. The constant news about viruses, worms and other attacks during 2004 which brought down Windows based networks wordlwide remained the best adverts for security conscious users staying in the Unix camp.

BakBone Software introduced VaultDR Plugin Modules , a comprehensive disaster recovery solution for Linux and Solaris SPARC. VaultDR PMs substantially reduce downtime in a disaster recovery scenario by allowing full system recovery including the operating system, applications, system settings, disk partitioning information, and data in hours as opposed to days. BakBone was one of the fastest growing storage companies in 2004. But accounting irregularities led to late filings and eventual delisting on one major financial market.

December 2004

Sun Microsystems, Inc. announced that the combination of the Oracle E-Business Suite 11i9, Oracle Database 10g running on Sun Fire E4900 systems with the Solaris 10 OS and Sun StorEdge 6100 series storage arrays achieved a record throughput of 1.27 Million order lines per hour using the Oracle Applications Standard Batch benchmark. The batch benchmark includes the High Volume Order Import (HVOP) program, which is one of the batch components of the Oracle eBusiness Suite Order Management module. The HVOP benchmark focuses exclusively on meeting the high order volumes originating from the electronic channels, such as consumer and business web sites, B2B exchanges, and EDI/XML.

This was another milestone for Sun to reclaim the SPARC performance highground and pick up from its lowest point in the summer of 2002 when things looked so bad that I wrote an article How Long Can Sun Stand the Heat in the Server Benchmark Wars?

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...Later:- when Sun was acquired by Oracle in 2010 - I wrote this final article about the SPARC market - SSDs and Sun-Oracle... past failures / future challenges.

But I've written hundreds of other articles about the SSD market - which is changing the future of storage in the enterprise. You can see more about SSDs on
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