This week Sun Microsystems plans to announce new x86-based server products, including one that can support up to eight dual-core chips. In doing so, Sun is betting that IT managers will increasingly move to large systems as part of a consolidation and virtualisation strategy.
Most business users today rely on two-socket systems, so moving to eight sockets is a big step up. Analysts say eight-socket models are a tiny part of the x86 server market, and not all vendors sell them. IBM sells eight-socket x86 systems. However, Hewlett-Packard last year dropped an eight-socket system it had introduced in 2003.
The new Sun Fire x4600 runs Advanced Micro Design's Opteron chip, which can scale from two to eight sockets. It's "really a virtualisation platform that allows customers to consolidate dozens or more conventional two-socket systems that never get fully utilised," says Andy Bechtolsheim, Sun's chief architect and senior vice president for network systems.
Bob Pappagianopoulos, corporate director of technical services and operations at Partners HealthCare System in Boston, says he hasn't needed to go beyond four sockets for any of his x86-based applications. But the health care provider is testing virtualisation, and that could lead to the use of larger servers to support multiple applications, Pappagianopoulos says.
"If we're successful on putting many applications on a four-way, then we may look to expand," he says. "But I don't see us doing that in the next one to two years."
Charles Orndorff, vice president of infrastructure services at Crossmark Holdings in Plano, Texas, is a user of HP's discontinued eight-socket system who has switched to buying HP's four-socket, dual-core systems. Although pleased with the four-socket performance, he says he isn't ruling out the need for eight sockets at some point, but he quickly added that quad-core chips are coming.
Sun expects that some early users will be high- performance computing sites, such as the Tokyo Institute of Technology, which bought 655 of the x4600 servers to create a supercomputer that's ranked the seventh-fastest in the world. Satoshi Matsuoka, head of computing infrastructures at Tokyo Tech, says the university wanted a system that's compatible with traditional supercomputers — "very fat nodes, with lots of CPUs and memory per node." Each physical server is a node.
This week, Sun is also expected to release its Sun Fire x4500 data server, which uses a two-socket Opteron chip and comes with up to 24TB of storage in 48 500GB drives. Sun says this product, which is code-named Thumper, isn't a replacement for traditional storage systems but will speed up storage-intensive applications such as video searching and business intelligence.
IDC analyst Jean Bozman says that by bringing together storage and computing elements, Sun will be able to take out network latency and improve throughput and performance. "Large servers put memory close to processors," she says. "This is similar thinking."