The 64-bit Merced microprocessor has led to what might seem an unlikely alliance between Intel and Sun Microsystems, which have been archrivals in chip design.
The companies thave announced collaborative efforts related to Merced, which Intel expects to release in 1999. The partnership includes patent cross licensing permitting the companies to share technologies for semiconductors, computer systems and software. But officials from both companies declined during a teleconference to provide any specifics of that aspect of the agreement, including whether or not it allows Sun to also produce Merced chips.
John Miner, vice president and general manager of Intel's enterprise server group, dismissed questions about the cross licensing portion of the partnership, saying that it will allow the companies to work together but "other than that there is no significance" to that part of the agreement.
Beyond making the announcement and touting it as significant, officials had little substantive to say about the partnership, which means that Sun's Solaris operating system, which is a version of Unix, will run on Merced.
That raised the question, asked in a variety of ways by reporters but never quite answered, of what effect Merced might have on Sun's 64-bit Sparc chip, which also runs Solaris. Although Solaris already operates on the Intel platform, the highly-touted Merced, designed primarily for use in high-end workstations and servers that are the heart of Sun's business, has generated a lot of interest and is expected to be the hot microprocessor technology when it is released.
Janpieter Scheerder, president of Sun's SunSoft business unit, was effusive in his praise of Merced during the teleconference saying, "We believe that Merced can make Solaris run as an operating system like no other."
While that might not seem to convey much faith in Sun's own chip, when questioned about why customers would choose Solaris running on Sparc when they can have Solaris running on Merced, Scheerder said customers can't right now buy a system using Merced. Fair enough given that Merced is a couple of years away, so what about the future?, he was asked.
"Customers want to have choice," he responded. "This is going to be based on performance, price performance."
But he couldn't be specific about what sort of price break there might be relative to performance between the two chips, nor could he quantify performance differences between Merced and Sparc.
"We play on both platforms," Scheerder said.
Scheerder said users want a single Solaris system that can run on different platforms because that setup makes them "more comfortable." He went on to praise Sun's support capabilities over those of Microsoft Corp., Sun's rival in operating systems.
Solaris is intended to cut into the Windows NT platform and keep Microsoft from taking over the enterprise end of the industry.
"I think there is a huge difference between the level of support Microsoft can offer NT users compared to the support Sun can offer Solaris users," Scheerder said.
Indeed, the specter of Microsoft likely plays heavily into the alliance between Intel and Sun, said analyst Rob Enderle of the Giga Information Group.
Sun and Microsoft have been involved in an ongoing legal dispute over Java licensing and for months executives at both companies have routinely sniped at each other in the trade press. As excitement over Merced spread and major PC manufacturers lined up to support the technology when it is released, Sun also had to make a move, Enderle said.
"From Sun's standpoint, I don't think they had much choice," he said.
Sun still has the disadvantage of being primarily a hardware vendor trying to compete in the software end of the market where Microsoft is the undisputed leader. Given the history between Sun and Microsoft and their attempts at working together, Intel was left as the option.
"Basically, they want to avoid the same fate as Apple," Enderle said, noting that many believe if Apple Computer had chosen the Intel platform it would not now be struggling for survival.
"You've got to be aligned with one of the two primaries," Enderle said. "There's too much power in both of those companies [Intel and Microsoft] to take on both at the same time."
Sun also is a major competitor of Hewlett-Packard, which worked with Intel to design the new computing architecture on which Merced is based.
Intel's Miner said the Sun agreement will not undermine the relationship with HP. Nor will it lead to changes in the design of Merced, which also will be able to run IA-32 code.
"Merced is well down the design curve," Miner said.