Niagara code goes open source, Sun Fire taps grid

Sun opened the code behind Niagara and is offering Sun Fire customers support services via the Sun Grid.

In addition to launching its new Sun Fire servers, Sun Microsystems Inc. executives in London revealed plans to get the machines connected to grid technology, as well as an initiative to offer code for its new processor as open-source software.

Customers who buy Sun Fire severs, which are based on Sun's UltraSparc T1 chip -- code named Niagara -- will be asked if they want to connect to the grid when they first turn on the server, company executives said. If customers decide to do so, the Sun Grid Compute Utility will handle some tasks for the server, like checking for patches or upgrades.

"Niagara will be the first system from Sun that will be managed by the Sun Grid," Jonathan Schwartz, president and chief operating officer for Sun, told an audience of customers, press and Sun employees here.

The previously announced Sun Grid Compute Utility offers pay-per-use for computing cycles and storage capacity. Using the grid to support Sun Fire servers is one of the first uses of the grid.

"Computers are better managed by computers, not people," Schwartz commented.

Since Sun introduced the Niagara chip, the company has been touting its power efficiencies. Sun is similarly pushing the low power consumption of the Sun Fire servers. Schwartz said that Sun has been conducting discussions with governments and utilities around the world to build a program to offer discounts on servers that are energy-efficient. The program would be similar to one in the U.S., where local utilities offer discounts to customers that buy energy-saving appliances.

"The servers would be subsidized by those who can benefit from more efficient servers," Schwartz said. Governments and utilities can benefit because they don't have to improve their power-generating capabilities to support power-hungry products, he said.

Rene Wieholtz, the chief executive officer for Germany-based Strato, a Web hosting service, said that once the company replaces its current servers with the new line, it will be consuming only 10 percent to 15 percent of the power it has needed up to now for its servers, and only 10 percent to 15 percent of the physical space. Strato has about 60 tons of Sun equipment currently, Wieholtz said.

Schwartz also announced an initiative called Project Rainbow, which will release Niagara code to the open source community. "We asked ourselves why is there only open source for software. Why not open up Niagara to run Linux or other [operating systems]," said Schwartz. Opening up the code behind Niagara means that any fab could make a Sparc system.

"Sparc has always been about Solaris but now Sparc is an industry standard to foster innovation," Schwartz said.

Tim O'Reilly, a well-known, open-source supporter, delivered a prerecorded message to the audience, calling the idea of extending open source to chip design "fascinating," and suggested that the move could stimulate development.

However, the move to publicly offer processor code as open source is not new. Sun has offered code for Sparc chips on an open-source basis for a number of years. In the past however, some developers have criticized Sun for offering what amounts to its own variation of open-source licensing.

Schwartz also suggested a radical change in the server market will come soon. In the near future, server makers will begin to give away their servers in exchange for ongoing service contracts. Schwartz compared the set-up to the mobile telecommunications market where operators often give away handsets in exchange for service contracts.

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