Users affected by a long-standing cache memory problem on Sun Microsystems’s Ultra Enterprise servers are slamming Sun Microsystems’s handling of the issue and its attempt to keep users quiet about it.
Sun officials didn’t return repeated calls last week seeking comment for this story.
Topping the list of user complaints are the frequency of server crashes caused by the problem, fixes that don’t work and Sun’s tendency to initially blame the problem on other factors before acknowledging it — often only under a nondisclosure agreement.
“They treated the whole thing like a cover-up,” says one user at a large utility in the Western US who asks not to be named.
Even with hardware replacements, the utility has had so many crashes on its Sun 6500 servers since they were purchased in May that the machines have been pulled out of production, the user says. Now the company is considering returning some of them as defective.
When the utility first informed Sun about the issues, “they told us this was an unusual problem and that others did not have it. . . . They repeatedly said this,” the user says. “Poor handling of this case could cost Sun millions of dollars in sales as well as a high-profile client.”
Sun recently acknowledged a problem involving an external memory cache on its UltraSPARC II microprocessor module. Under certain conditions, the problem has been triggering system failures and frequent server reboots at customer locations over the past 18 months.
In a recent interview with Computerworld on the subject, Sun Executive Vice President John Shoemaker said a fix — in the form of a mirrored-cache technology — is on the way. “We are close to declaring complete victory over this,” he said.
That won’t come a moment too soon for IQ4hire., a Chicago-based start-up that purchased a Sun Enterprise 420R and a Sun Enterprise 220 server in May. Since then, the 420R has crashed seven times at the dot-com, while the 220R crashed for the first time last week, says CIO Eric Durst.
“Sun came out at least four times on the 420. They talked about the heating, the air conditioning, the static electricity. . . They replaced hardware and generally changed everything but the frame,” Durst says. “They didn’t appear to know how to fix it.”
“I’ve had cases open on this problem over and over again,” says Norman Morrison, an independent project consultant working at a service provider that hosts Web sites for companies that sell retail goods. But, he adds, “I’ve had people at Sun tell me it is a very rare occurrence.”
It was only recently that Sun finally told him about the problem and the planned fix. “They said it was necessary to sign an NDA to find out what fixes they had in the works for the cache problem. Neither I nor my company has signed such an agreement,” Morrison says.
Ken Dort, an attorney at Gordon & Glickson in Chicago, last week said that such nondisclosure agreements (NDA), though highly unusual, are legally enforceable as long as they aren’t signed under duress.
“If there’s bad news to be distributed, these NDAs can slow down the propagation of the information and give the [vendor] more time to fix the problem,” Dort says.
In cases where users rely heavily on a vendor’s product, they are more willing to sign such agreements, he added.
“It’s not illegal or even coercive,” said Esther Roditti, an independent computer and Internet law specialist in New York. On the other hand, she said, “I’ve never heard of this happening before.”
Many Users Unaffected
Despite the frequency with which the problem appears to hit some Sun users, there are clearly many others who aren’t affected by it.
“We have seen zero problems of this nature on our machines,” said Scott Medlock, chief operating officer at Commercial Open Systems Inc., an Internet service provider in Kansas City, Mo.
The company runs a variety of Sun servers and has seen no evidence of a memory glitch, despite running the servers “at 70% capacity 100% of the time” during the past three years, Medlock said.
DiCarta Inc., an online contract management service, has also had no problems related to the memory issue, said CEO Scott Martin. The Redwood City, Calif.-based company is a member of a Sun program aimed at improving overall service delivery of Internet service providers.
“There’s never been an issue with any of the Sun equipment with regard to any hardware failures,” Martin said. “And that includes everything from the smallest servers all the way to their biggest one.”