Netra competitors not blind to its success
HP and IBM girding to battle Sun for hearts
Special to SunWorld Online by Jean S. Bozman, IDC research manager, Unix and Server Operating Environments
Sun boosted the speed and throughput of its Netra servers in late March, nearly two months shy of their first birthday.
The Netra servers, which set the pace for turnkey systems with bundled Netscape Communications and Sun-grown security software, have gathered as much mindshare as market share in their first 10 months on the market. They got off to a quick start, bouyed by users' enthusiasm for setting up Internet and intranet sites. Netra's packaging made setting up an Internet server a one-stop shopping excursion.
Based on Sun workstation hardware and aggressively priced (starting as low as $6,000, including firewall and security software), they still loom large on the radar of users shopping for packaged Internet servers.
The first crop of Netras sold well -- pushing Sun SPARCstation 5 and SPARCstation 20 sales beyond Sun's original expectations, even though prices hit $18,000 at the high end. The new pricing for Netras ranges from $7,500 to $24,000.
The Netra's second year, however, is bound to be bumpier than the first, as Unix competitors challenge Netra with midrange servers, and PC makers offer upsized PC servers. Sun faces a new crop of low-end Microsoft Windows NT-based servers from Compaq and others that will run Microsoft's Internet software.
This squeeze from above and below was anticipated by Sun: The new Netras are more than twice as fast as the originals, boosted by the underlying Ultra 1 workstation hardware and 64-bit UltraSPARC RISC chips. Sun also hinted at the late March announcement that larger Netra servers are on the horizon to serve users as they scale up Internet and intranet applications and access larger databases.
While precise market share has yet to be gathered for all 1995 sales, International Data Corp. estimates that nearly 70 percent of all Internet servers are Unix-based, and that more than 100,000 Internet server software licenses were sold last year.
There is little argument that a large fraction of those Internet servers run either Sun's SunOS or Solaris 2.X operating systems, although many of them are Sun workstations that support home-pages and high-end SPARCserver 1000 and SPARCcenter 2000 servers that host Internet services. The Internet Shopping Network in Palo Alto, Calif., for example, mixes its bank of Netras with several large Sun servers running online catalog databases.
Users report that the packaged Sun Netra systems they own are not their only standalone Unix servers: The site's Netras are mixed in with a wider base of Unix workstations and Unix servers from Sun and other vendors. Netra does not own the Internet, but it is a leading platform for dedicated Internet servers.
One user, Irwin Goverman, vice president and CIO of the Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound in Seattle, WA, said Netras are a key component of his Internet strategy, with dozens of them used at remote sites. However, at the central site, the Netras are joined by larger Sun servers that run Sybase databases. Customers can dial into the back-end database servers via the Netra-based front-end software and homepage. "It's one piece of a tiered architecture, rather than just a simple purchase of Netras," he said. "It's more of a long-term partnership with Sun around Unix-based products." The managed health care organization also has IBM mainframes for patient-care applications and many Windows-based PCs as client machines.
Sun not alone
Not surprisingly, the Netra's success provoked a reaction from other Unix vendors. Equivalent Unix platforms from Silicon Graphics Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. for dedicated Internet servers were priced somewhat higher -- and did not have the same level of integration Netras did. SGI came closest by bundling its WebForce authoring software and Netscape Communications and Commerce server software with SGI Indigo workstations for $11,000. New versions of SGI Internet/Intranet servers, based on Indy workstations and Challenge servers, are priced from $11,000 to $20,000 and include WebForce authoring software and Netscape's Enterprise Server with built-in security. A separate firewall product, called Gauntlet, is priced at $7,000.
HP took direct aim at Netras this winter with its D-Class 200 series models. The D-200 takes on Sun's Netra i600, offering a unit with 32 megabytes of memory, a 2 gigabyte disk and up to 66 connections per second, as measured in Webstones, for $12,200. HP claimed an equivalent Netra i600 is priced at $15,500. In addition, HP went one step further last month with its "Sunburst" marketing program by offering discounts of up to 20 percent when users trade in Netras and other Sun servers for HP servers.
Other vendors are also strengthening their packaged Internet offerings: IBM is selling prepackaged Internet software modules with its RS/6000 series, including the low-end E20 and F30 Unix servers, priced from $10,000 and $14,000, respectively. IBM's Power Solutions program throws in bundled Internet server software, at no additional cost, to RS/6000 buyers -- and pre-installs it at the factory. One such package runs on the low-priced RS/6000 43p workstation, with low-end models priced from around $5,000. And last fall, Digital Equipment Corp. fielded an Alpha-based Windows NT Internet server priced from $9,800 up to $16,500. Digital's Unix-based Internet AlphaServer Family ranges in price from $9,000 to $20,000.
Now, as the UltraSPARC-powered Netras roll out this May, users will find they provide two to three times the performance of the first crop. Sun says the new Netras can support 15 to 18 million hits per day, a boost in performance that should satisfy many more site visitors. As an increasing number of corporations move mission-critical applications to their intranets, Sun may be forced to install the Netra package on larger and larger servers.
Larger Netra boxes would answer the moves by HP and IBM to sell intranet servers with client/server applications that use the Internet's HTML interfaces to eliminate format compatibility problems. This creates universal interfaces for a wide variety of Microsoft Windows client machines, Macintosh clients, Unix workstations, and Unix servers. Larger Netras would also provide more firepower for what Sun expects to be an explosion of Internet "thin" clients and Internet appliances. These small Internet-access portables and desktops have so little processing power that they depend on the back-end Internet/intranet server for all computation and database access.
The next generation of Netras will be a foundation for the house Sun is building on Internet technology. Last month's announcement included Java development toolkits, and links to CORBA-friendly servers via the new object-based "Joe" middleware. Joe could link Netra servers running Java code to a wide variety of Unix and NT servers -- once users build new applications with Joe. This is a move to build up an inventory of mission-critical applications on a variety of corporate servers that can be accessed through Internet servers.
Sun has a leadership position in Internet servers, in part due to its ability to package Internet technology in a brand-name server and in part due to its bench-strength in technology experts. These experts include Whitfield Diffie, who helped to develop the SKIP encryption software that allows "tunneling" across the Internet from one secure Internet site to another, and James Gosling, who pioneered the Java language. The question for Sun is not how to deploy Internet technology, but how to configure and to price Netras -- and what software to bundle into them -- to stay at the head of the pack.
About the author
Jean S. Bozman is research manager, Unix and Server Operating Environments, at International Data Corp. in Mountain View, CA. Reach Jean at email@example.com.
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