As has been widely rumored for months, Sun Microsystems and Advanced Micro Devices today tied the knot at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas to deliver a complete line of Opteron-based servers in the next calendar year. The move will initially silence some critics, who have complained that Sun has not faced the hard realities that its UltraSparc platform has fallen woefully behind the competition. But the critics will soon be lamenting how long it will take Sun to roll out its AMD hardware and 64-bit Solaris for the Opteron.
It is an unfortunate fact of the computer business that slapping together a server and software platform stack takes months or years, not weeks. The machines have to be designed, prototyped, and tested. Software has to be tuned for third party products and drivers have to be written for peripherals. The whole shebang has to be rigorously tested as a complete system. And then the sales force and reseller channel has to be trained to sell and support the new products as the manufacturing facilities actually acquire all the piece parts and create the finished hardware and software. This takes time, and it takes time that neither Sun nor AMD seem to have as their respective competition is raking them over the coals.
That said, the fact that Sun has conceded that Solaris for X86 running on Opteron processors fitted into Sun servers is a great option for the midrange is a big step in the right direction. And now, with Sun behind it, AMD has its first real tier one OEM partner in the server market, and will probably enlist Sun to push Opteron-based workstations, too. While IBM has endorsed the Opteron processors in its eServer 325 two-way server for HPC markets who want fast Linux servers that offer Itanium-class performance for a Xeon-class price, Big Blue has been very careful not to endorse Opteron as a strategic general computing platform.
Sun is doing a bit of a dance here, too, because if there is one thing that it does not want to do, it is spook the Sparc customer base into thinking Sparc doesn't have a future. Sun CEO and chairman Scott McNealy gave the keynote address at Comdex today, and in a conference call with analysts and journalists after that keynote, McNealy wanted to give the impression that by partnering with AMD, Sun would not be spreading itself thin and that moving more aggressively into the X86 market while "doubling down" on Sparc, Sun would be able to make more money. "By doing this with AMD and other X86 vendors, we can invest more on UltraSparc-IV, UltraSparc-V, and our throughput computing." The latter refers to the dual-core "Gemini" and eight-core "Niagara" multithreaded Sparc processors that Sun is working on for future entry midrange servers. These are elegant designs, but they are years away, and cannot help Sun build up momentum against Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM in the entry and midrange markets where they are pushing Lintel and Wintel iron as an alternative to RISC/Unix servers--often including their own products--because of the lower costs of the X86-based products.
McNealy conceded that Sun was way behind on the X86 game, and said that the company should have had its own X86 servers using Pentium II processors and running its own 32-bit Solaris operating system out the door five years ago. He alluded to the fact that Sun has no great love of Intel or the Itanium architecture. Sun has ported its Solaris 9 operating system to the Itanium chip, but has never productized it, essentially because anything that helps Intel hurts Sun. As many have said before, helping AMD hurts Intel, and that is the best reason for Sun to have adopted AMD engines for at least some of its servers--provided Opterons actually work well. McNealy characteristically took a jab at Intel while explaining why Sun chose AMD's Opterons. "These guys," meaning AMD, "got the binary compatibility right," he said. "They," meaning Intel, "never had an architecture that was worth what we put into Solaris. We were late to the X86 game, but we're right on the button here. We are the first rock-and-roll vendor on the Opteron."
Sun's exact plans for servers are a little bit vague, and Neil Knox, general manager of Sun's Volume Systems Products group, did not offer much clarification of exactly what Sun would eventually deliver or when. The company has committed to roll out two-way and four-way Opteron servers in calendar 2004, and Knox and McNealy both hinted that a broad product line based on Opterons would eventually come out, "with Sun logos all over these puppies," as McNealy so aptly put it. They said that these machines would be generally available in the first half of 2004, and that Sun's channel partners would have them to play with before the year was out.
In addition to these two servers, Sun will probably put out uniprocessor and eight-way machines using the Opteron processors, but will likely not go above the eight-way level for a while. That is the natural, easy scaling point of the Opteron's HyperTransport system interconnect. (An eight-way is built from four two-way boards linked by HyperTransport, which is a fast, low-latency memory-to-memory interconnect.) Sun will surely deliver these as rack-mounted machines, but could deliver them as tower boxes as well (particularly for uniprocessor and two-way machines) if it wants to target the small and mid-sized business market.
Sun danced around the idea of putting out Opteron workstations, but it seems logical for Sun to do this if the price/performance of the resulting workstation allows it to better compete against Wintel and Lintel workstations.
Sun and AMD are not going to tweak the current Opteron processors for the Sun line, but Sun will be able to offer AMD with some insights as future Opterons are developed, but their cooperation on the chip front seems to fall far short of HP's relationship as a strategic chip design partner with Intel on the Itanium line of processors. This could change, of course. And more importantly, Sun's relationship with AMD will give it access to an advanced foundry where it could even cook up future Sparc chips, if Sun's relationship with Texas Instruments hits a bump in the road. Sun has done nothing but wave the TI flag as the UltraSparc-III and UltraSparc-IV processors were delayed. The question now is how tired are Sun's arms? Continuing delays in Sparc processors could force Sun to shift production to AMD or to Sparc licensee Fujitsu, which builds its own Sparc-compatible chips and which has its own foundries.
Where Sun and AMD seem to want to collaborate the most is on the HyperTransport interconnect. Sun's own "WildCat" Sun Fire Link interconnect is very similar to HyperTransport, and the two could probably help each other a lot in this area to build more scalable commercial systems and more powerful HPC parallel systems.
For now, says Knox, Sun will continue to sell its Sun Fire V60x and V65x two-way rack-mounted Xeon DP servers because some customers have standardized on the boxes. He absolutely stepped on the idea that Sun might launch future Pentium 4 or Xeon boxes. For Sun, it seems, X86 architecture now means AMD Opteron.
As for software, the 32-bit version of Solaris will run on the Opteron processors right now, since Opterons support both 32-bit and 64-bit processing concurrently on the same chip. An early adopter version of the 64-bit version of Solaris for the Opteron will be available in the April to May 2004 timeframe through the Solaris Express preview method that Sun has been using since the late summer to preview Solaris 10 features on Sparc and X86 platforms. General availability of Solaris for Opterons is slated for August. This might mean that Sun is moving up the Solaris 10 announcement, which was expected in October 2004. Logically, the Opteron-based servers should be equipped with Solaris 10, not the current Solaris 9. All Sun will say right now is that the Solaris running on the Sparcs and Opterons at that time will be "bug for bug, feature for feature" compatible.
The Sun Fire Opteron servers will be able to support Linux operating systems from Red Hat or SuSE, according to Knox, who refused to answer a question about whether or not these machines will run Windows. In theory, of course, these Sun boxes, like the V60x and V65x, can run Windows. But Sun is all about Solaris and Linux.
Now, Sun has to line up the Solaris ISVs to get behind Solaris-Opteron platforms. Both companies are dedicating money and people to do this, as well as co-marketing money to push the resulting products. Oracle, SAP, BEA Systems, Cadence Design Systems, Computer Associates, and a handful of other ISVs have endorsed the future Sun-AMD platforms. Sun and AMD have made a developers resource kit available to ISVs so they can get to work porting their applications to the future platform.