Sun, Intel announce server pact

Sun will be building a complete line of Xeon servers and workstations, says CEO

Sun Microsystems has announced an alliance with Intel, a move that will greatly expand Sun’s involvement with the chip maker and continue its slow and long embrace of the x86 world.

Although some 70 percent of Solaris users are already running the operating system on Intel-based platforms, says Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz, the deal cements the relationship between the two companies.

In a teleconference, Sun and Intel officials detailed what they called a long-term collaboration to optimise Solaris on Intel processors, as well as conduct some joint research and development efforts.

"Solaris is evolving as a mainstream operating system," says Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO and president, explaining why Intel wants a closer relationship with Sun. "It is becoming the mission-critical Unix for Xeon," he says.

Sun's Schwartz says, "It's evident that customers wanted us to work together, and so clearly we wanted to do exactly that."

Intel has agreed to promote Solaris and, in return, Sun will "be building a complete line of Xeon servers as well as workstations," says Schwartz.

Sun will start shipping systems by June.

What that holds for the future, only "time will tell," says Schwartz, adding, "this is really a comprehensive relationship."

"All the customers are demanding more flexibility and interoperability — that’s also a strong argument for us to work together," says Otellini.

The vendors will also synchronise releases around chip and operating system upgrades. "We want Solaris to absolutely scream on Xeon," says Schwartz.

Sun’s historic hardware focus has been on its UltraSparc line of servers. That began to change in 2003, when the company announced plans to sell x86 servers based on processors from Advanced Micro Devices. In 2004, Sun settled antitrust battles with Microsoft, and the settlement agreement included a pledge by both vendors to improve system platform interoperability.

Sun has faced longstanding pressure to offer x86-based servers because of decisions made by customers such as Don McPhee, director of technical services for Atlantic Blue Cross Care in Moncton, New Brunswick.

McPhee says the health insurer, which is using Sun UltraSparc systems for its web tier, is moving to a "more commodity-based infrastructure" based on x86 systems running either AMD or Intel processors.

When his firm started using web applications in 2000, Sun dominated and vendors were targeting applications for Solaris, says McPhee. "Things have changed," he says. "We just went with the momentum."

McPhee says he will go with the vendor that offers the best deal; Sun's x86 AMD servers are in the running, he adds.

Stephen Josselyn, an IDC analyst, says Sun, like every other vendor selling RISC-based systems in the low end, is "fighting that same battle" against x86.

"As we look at this from a Unix perspective, that seems to be the trend -- customers are moving away from the RISC/Unix environment and are choosing the more commodity-based x86 platforms," says Josselyn.

But Sun is also working on its low-end UltraSparc-based products, in particular its Niagara offering. Niagara is an eight-core, multithreaded UltraSparc chip that will be offered as an alternative to x86 platforms. Sun also open-sourced its Solaris platform, and has been especially interested in seeing it used on x86 systems.

Sun is also telling customers that it is continuing to invest in high-end UltraSparc systems; last week, it announced that it was on schedule to release its multicore Rock processor, which is designed for databases and other memory-intensive workloads, by mid-2008.

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