A Galaxy of opportunity

Sun has head-turning technology in its new servers

Back in the day, Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim made his mark pioneering single-board workstations and servers, an engineering feat that required a new take on integration. Sun's "pizza box" workstations earned the company a reputation as an innovator. Now, thanks to Sun's acquisition of Bechtolsheim's server startup, Kealia, innovation through integration could once again become Sun's hallmark.

It bears noting that most of the leading-edge technology in Sun's new Galaxy rackmount servers came through the door with Bechtolsheim and his tiny Kealia crew. A few dozen Kealia engineers pulled off a feat of engineering that Sun Microsystems, with a lack of mission and a crisis of morale, could not. Sun has in Galaxy the sort of head-turning technology that put it on the map. There's every reason to wonder whether Sun, stuck in its own private and self-created recession, can make something of it.

If Sun can't turn Galaxy into a hit, the technology won't be to blame. Bechtolsheim and his Kealia engineers, with Sun's best brains picking up where Kealia left off, have taken integration a step further. Where PC rack servers traditionally plant two Gigabit Ethernet ports on the motherboard, Galaxy has four. Where most 1U rack servers just barely squeeze into their chassis, Galaxy's compact and highly integrated design makes room for the hot-swappable power supplies and cooling fans more common to 2U systems, still leaving room for two (in Galaxy 1) or five (in Galaxy 2) PCI-X slots. And thanks to AMD's dual-core Opteron CPUs, Sun's got a four-way rack server in a design created for two.

Galaxy pulls off this space magic with a reduced component count and the cooling overkill of a bank of really fast (15,000 rpm) muffin fans. Unique to Galaxy is its use of 2.5-inch, SFFSAS (small form factor serial-attached SCSI) hard drives. SATA drives are also an option, but Bechtolsheim is almost as jazzed about SFFSAS as he is about Opteron, noting that the heads on the smaller drives have far less distance to cover while seeking than 3.5-inch drives do, and SFFSAS drives will rise to common SCSI rotational speeds of 10,000 and 15,000 rpm. SFFSAS is certainly bleeding-edge tech at present, but I agree with Andy that it will take off like a rocket.

Through my telescope, the brightest star in Galaxy is its SP (service processor) daughter card. A 266MHz Freescale PowerPC CPU creates an independent, free-running system within a system dedicated to simple (for admins), yet deep, remote management. Galaxy's SP provides KVM redirection, meaning that any client with a Java-enabled browser can stand in as a Galaxy server's console from the instant the BIOS copyright hits the screen.

The thriller in Galaxy's SP software is remote storage device redirection. Put simply, you can slap a Red Hat or Solaris boot CD in your notebook's CD-ROM drive, VPN into a Galaxy server hundreds of miles away that doesn't even have a bootable OS installed, and install the OS from scratch, tracking the process across reboots, lockups and requests to insert the next disc. This is server management the way it was meant to be.

AMD's technical contributions notwithstanding, Kealia and Sun have made a sweet server that will surprise Sun's competitors and server shoppers alike. But Galaxy's technical wizardry, although it makes great PR, could go the way of Solaris x86 (the first one), the directionless Sparc, and Sun's repeated stabs at Java tools leadership. Sun has to treat Galaxy and its progeny — and, bluntly, Sun Microsystems as a whole — as a valuable long-term investment before it can expect prospective customers to do the same.

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