Sun Unveils Updated OS, New Services, Aggressive Chip Strategy

These days, Sun has a pronounced bounce in its step—enough to give many Solaris administrators that old late-1990’s feeling again

The fortunes of Sun Microsystems Inc. appear to again be on the rise.

Earlier this month the Unix giant punctuated its quarterly rollout of new products with the announcement of a utility computing service, called SunGrid. Sun’s new grid offering is anchored by six data centers in the U.S., Canada, and England, and purports to provide customers with pay-for-use access to CPU power—at the cost of $1 per hour of CPU usage. If SunGrid catches on, analysts say, it could change the game for Sun.

Utility computing isn’t the only thing Sun has going for it. Last month, the company disclosed licensing details for its forthcoming OpenSolaris operating system. As expected, Sun unveiled a new license, the Community Development and Distribution License (CDDL), which is derived from the highly successful Mozilla Public License (MPL).

At its annual analysts confab last week, Sun reported on the progress of its much-ballyhooed Throughput Computing venture, an aggressive multi-core chip strategy Sun first outlined two years ago. At the time, some skeptics said Sun would be unable to execute on the aggressive timetable it then outlined, but now analysts say that Sun’s first Throughput Computing deliverable—a multi-core design called “Niagara”—appears to be on time.

On top of all of this, Sun recently delivered a Solaris 10 release that’s the result of more than 3,000 engineering years and $500 million in research and development. Solaris 10 ships with more 600 new features, including Sun’s much-anticipated DTrace and Solaris containers technologies.

It’s enough to give many Solaris administrators that old late-1990’s feeling again.

“I believe that Solaris 10 is the most advanced [Unix] OS available, and through opening up Solaris, members of the open-source community will be encouraged to further develop it,” says Conor Svensson, a Solaris administrator with IT consulting and services specialist Evolution Plc.

Like many Solaris users, Svensson believes Sun’s flagship operating environment is its strongest technology asset. In this regard, he sees Sun’s OpenSolaris push as a sensible strategy to encourage wider uptake of, and development for, Solaris on Intel and AMD architectures. “I do not see [OpenSolaris] becoming as popular with the open-source community as Linux, but I do believe members of the community will embrace it with open arms.”

Francois Bolduc, a Sun Certified System Administrator (SCSA) with a prominent Japanese computing and services company, concurs. Bolduc remains first and foremost a proponent of Solaris running on Sun’s SPARC hardware, but he acknowledges that OpenSolaris and Solaris x86 can fill important roles in many enterprise environments.

“I am just getting my hands wet with Sun Java Enterprise System components on Solaris Intel, and it certainly gives me ideas on how to reuse the older Intel-based hardware at my disposal,” he explains. “Maybe not for production-grade applications yet, but at least for demonstration purposes.”

Earnings Mixed

Sun had mixed news about earnings in its most recent financial quarter—revenues were down 1.6 percent year over year. Profits were was up, way up—but Bolduc and other long-time users of Solaris don’t think customers in Sun’s core markets have abandoned the once-and-future Unix kingpin. “The slowness of the current times has not scared the customer base away from Sun, I don't think. They [Sun] just have not grown the way they expected,” he says.

Others, like Solaris administrator Svensson, acknowledge that Sun has lost some market share, especially to Linux, but are optimistic that the company can once again right itself. “I believe Sun is heading in the right direction, although only time will tell if they were too late with pushing their x86 Solaris into the mainstream,” he says. “Companies—including our clients—have been making the move with some systems from Sun hardware to x86 Linux boxes for some time now, which is making it harder for Sun to get a foothold.”

In this respect, Svensson says, Sun’s decision to make Solaris 10 free for use in production environments could pay off handsomely. “With Solaris 10 being made available for free in production environments, Sun is creating a strong competitor to Red Hat in the enterprise Linux world,” he says. “Red Hat and SuSE both charge [exorbitant] licensing fees for their enterprise editions of Linux, and Solaris 10 is a cheaper and superior OS to these Linux alternatives.”

Sun’s Hardware Story Coming into Focus

No one disputes the performance and maturity of Solaris, but Sun’s SPARC hardware has become a particularly tough sell over the last few years, as the once-highflying UltraSPARC architecture has been outpaced by competitive offerings such as IBM Corp.’s Power, Hewlett-Packard Co.’s PA-RISC, Intel Corp.’s Itanium, and Fujitsu’s own Sparc64.

In this respect, says Nathan Brookwood, a principal with microprocessor consultancy Insight64, it’s encouraging that Sun’s promised Throughput Computing vision is starting to take shape. Last October, for example, Sun confirmed that it had a working chip based on the Niagara design in its test labs. At the time, the company reiterated that Niagara is still on track to ship on schedule, in 2006. Based on what Brookwood heard at Sun’s analysts meeting, the company is still hewing to this timetable.

“Two years ago, Sun claimed that its radical Niagara processor with eight CPU cores and four threads per core had the potential to deliver fifteen times the performance of its UltraSPARC III processor, while consuming only [60 watts],” Brookwood writes. Since first making this claim in February of 2003, Sun has repeated it, using the same 15X performance comparison. This year, Brookwood notes, Sun once again trotted out the claim—with a twist.

“This year, Sun rolled out the same tired slide with the 15X performance claim for yet a third time,” he explains. “When challenged as to when Sun would cease projecting and start reporting actual results, Andy Ingram—Sun’s VP of Marketing for SPARC-based systems—replied that this year’s chart reflected measured, as opposed to projected data.”

This is an important step for Sun, says Brookwood. “It is at least encouraging that Sun appears to be on track with regard to the schedule and performance of the processor it first unveiled two years ago,” he writes. “Since that original unveiling, suppliers and buyers have become far more sensitive to issues of processor power consumption and heat dissipation. Some of Sun’s competitors have literally torn up their processor roadmaps in order to adapt to these issues. It’s reassuring to see that Sun’s design anticipated many of these issues, and appears to be on track to provide a valuable solution to those problems.”

Changing the Game for Sun?

On the surface, Sun’s new SunGrid offering looks like a can’t-miss entry into utility computing market for many customers who might otherwise be reluctant to take the plunge. Sun has built data centers in key geographic regions, and—in the often-confusing world of utility billing—promises to make compute capacity available to customers at $1 per hour of CPU usage.

“The question, of course, is how well this effort will work,” writes Charles King, a long-time industry watcher and principal with Pund-It Research. King sees lots of upside in Sun’s offering—the $1 per processor [or] gigabyte concept, for starters, along with Sun’s considerable experience managing data centers. “That said, Sun and Sun Grid face notable competitors who have far more experience and bigger pieces of the services market,” he argues, noting that the “$1 billion and change” Sun earns each quarter from service revenues is dwarfed by the takes of IBM and HP, which earn ten times more and four times more, respectively.

There’s another, more basic question, too, King says. “Along with swimming upstream against such rivals, we wonder how big a seller [a] utility-style grid will actually be,” he writes, noting that for many customers, the promise of grid computing lies in the ability to more effectively utilize existing resources, not outsource this infrastructure lock, stock, and barrel.

Market research giant Gartner Inc., too, says caveat emptor. “At slightly more than the 80 cents per gigabyte per month Sun charges to have its 6920 system deployed at a customer site, Storage Utility sounds compelling,” write Gartner analysts Adam W. Couture and Carl Claunch in a research bulletin. “It costs four to five times less than what managed hosting centers typically charge for shared storage pricing. But Sun hasn't yet announced what it will charge for tiered service levels, backups or any other management fees.”

Elsewhere, the Gartner analysts cite other potential gotchas, such as the fact that applications which are deployed on SunGrid must be based on Sun’s specifications, and that many per-CPU software licensing contracts could conceivably negate potential savings.

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