Sun Introduces New 12-Way Server, Mulls Fate of SunFire 3800

Competitors mount challenges to Sun in midrange RISC-Unix space

Sun Microsystems Inc. yesterday took the wraps off of a new 12-way server, the V1280, amid rumours that it plans to phase out its eight-way SunFire 3800, a so-called “mid-frame” server that supports partitioning capabilities.

Sun’s V1280 is another in its line of value-class V-series servers, UltraSPARC-powered systems that eschew the partitioning and advanced capabilities—such as Dynamic Reconfiguration (DR)—supported by its mid-frame SunFire 3800 and 4800, along with its high-end SunFire 12K and 15K.

Chris Kruell, group marketing manager for enterprise servers with Sun, says that the V1280 is marketed for customers that don’t require the advanced features of its 12-way SunFire 4800. “The value proposition on this system is really all about taking enterprise-class features and driving them into very aggressive pricing.”

He says that the V1280’s small footprint—it’s available in a 12U form-factor, with standard rack dimensions—will “appeal to those who are looking for a rack-optimized, compute-intensive platform.” In contrast, the SunFire 4800 is based on a 17U design.

The V1280 will be powered by Sun’s 900 MHz UltraSPARC III chips. Kruell explains that it’s Sun practice to introduce its newest chips—such as the 1.2 GHz UltraSPARC IIIs—in its high-end systems first: “We typically will start at the high-end of the product line and bring the faster CPUs out there.”

Kruell says that Sun is positioning the V1280 as a solution for customers who want to transition Windows workloads to more scalable Unix platforms.

Gordon Haff, a senior analyst with consultancy Illuminata, speculates that while the V1280 will almost certainly find a niche among customers, it probably won’t be as a platform for Windows consolidation efforts. “That’s pretty big for a Windows-based system. With a few exceptions, like Unisys, you’re starting to talk about fairly lunatic fringe for the Windows environment when you get up above eight-way.”

Midrange RISC-Unix Market Tightens Up

Sun’s moves come in the face of stiffer competition from the likes of IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), among others, who are vying with Sun for control of a shrinking midrange Unix server market space.

In a November, 2002 report, for example, Jeff Hewitt, an analyst with market research firm Gartner Dataquest, projected that revenue from shipments of Intel-based servers would surpass those of RISC-Unix systems in 2003. Wrote Hewitt: "RISC server vendors will need to take strong action to ensure that they position these hardware platforms as viable,"

IBM, which trails both HP and Sun in the midrange, took this message to heart, introducing in early November a midrange RISC-Unix box—the eight-way pSeries p650 server (—based on its 1.45 GHz Power4+ microprocessor.

Big Blue priced the p650 at around $36,000 in some configurations, and marketed it against Sun’s considerably more expensive eight-way SunFire 3800 and 12-way SunFire 4800 servers.

On Friday, Big Blue indicated that it had shipped 2,000 p650s in just over the two months it's been available.

Illuminata’s Haff confirms that the p650 has quickly made inroads into the midrange RISC-Unix space—most likely at the expense of Sun and other RISC-Unix players: “IBM’s p650 is doing very well, and it has to be taking business from some place.”

End of the SunFire 3800?

Sun’s Kruell won’t confirm or deny reports that his company will phase out the SunFire 3800. Nevertheless, both analysts and Sun’s competitors expect that to happen. There’s good reason for doing so, they argue. For example, observes IBM director of eServer marketing Jim McGaughan, Big Blue’s p650 is available at roughly one-third the cost of a common SunFire 3800 package available from Sun’s online store. At the same time, he concedes, Sun’s V880 eight-way is priced in the same ballpark as IBM’s midrange pSeries entrant. “In fairness to Sun, their inexpensive [V880] is roughly the same as the p650.”

McGaughan stresses, however, that IBM’s p650 supports its Capacity Upgrade on Demand and logical partitioning capabilities, while Sun’s V880 doesn’t support partitioning of any kind.

Similarly, Graham Kelly, director of product marketing for Fujitsu, asserts that his company’s PrimePower servers, which are based on the SPARC architecture and run Solaris (, offer customers a faster, more scalable alternative to Sun’s midrange systems.

Like Sun’s V880 and V1280, Fujitsu’s eight-way PrimePower 650 and 12-to-16-way PrimePower 850 systems don’t support partitioning. They do, however, boast higher clock speeds—1.3 GHz—along with, Kelly claims, superior internal bandwidth: “From a performance point of view, we have extremely high bus bandwidth in the system.”

Sun’s Kruell says that the projected internal bandwidth for the V1280 is 9.6 GB/s. Fujitsu claims 13.8 GB/s for its PrimePower 650 and a whopping 41.8 GB/s with its PrimePower 850 servers.

In the final analysis, Illuminata’s Haff says that the SunFire 3800 is “just way too expensive a box for the space it was in” largely because it exploits much of the same hardware found in the company’s top-of-the-line SunFire 15K systems.

Haff acknowledges that features such as partitioning and dynamic reconfiguration have their place, but speculates that they are “much less useful down in [the midrange] than they are in the higher-end systems, and Sun just couldn’t justify the price or the cost associated with that.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.