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Sun fires at the enterprise

With high-bandwidth UltraSPARC-based servers, Sun sets its sights on mainframes, HP, IBM.

By Cate T. Corcoran with additional reporting by Sari Kalin

April  1996
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Editor's note: Return to SunWorld Online on May 1 to see additional coverage of Sun's server announcement including interviews with Sun executives and analysts' views on the importance of these products to Sun customers.

Sun became a serious player in the commercial systems market with the announcement of six high-performance, high-reliability servers on April 16. The Ultra Enterprise servers are Sun's first high-end systems to use the new UltraSPARC chips -- Sun's first competitive processor in years -- and feature a redesigned bus promising impressive I/O rates.

Sun customers SunWorld Online contacted said they are evaluating the systems for use in mission-critical systems and for huge database applications. "Some Japanese banks want to move to open systems and may be interested in these servers," said Shigetoshi Yokoyama, a manager in the Open Systems Center of NTT Data Communications Systems Corp., a system integrator located in Tokyo, Japan, which plans to test the servers soon. "Uptime and scalability are very important points, but first we're interested in performance. And we need fault tolerance for finance and government [institutions]," he said.

Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space in Sunnyvale, CA, has already tested servers from Silicon Graphics and Digital Equipment Corp. and plans to evaluate Sun's soon. "We're looking for our next generation of servers," said Ronald Fong, research specialist in the Space Systems Division. Lockheed has many Sun workstations, but no high-end servers from Sun, he said. Lockheed knows its processor and I/O requirements and will pick the system with the best price-performance that meets its requirements, he said. The company is running data processing applications, including a data archive system, and good I/O performance will be very important. "In the past, SGI was very good with I/O and Sun was lacking. Sun has always been good with price-performance, but never a performance leader," he said.

Scalability is a key feature for a Sun user at Princeton University in New Jersey, where Sun already dominates the shop. The Ultra Enterprise servers "provide a nice upgrade path for us in the future," said Rick Pickett, data administrator at Princeton. "A truly scalable architecture makes it much easier for planning."

Sun touted the servers, which were code-named SunFire, as inexpensive mainframes, in the sense that they offer processing and I/O performance similar to a mainframe but rely on more-commodity type parts, which makes them less expensive. Analysts said the systems will appeal to Unix server users who can use the increased performance, but for non-technical reasons are unlikely to replace many mainframes. "The demand placed on Unix servers is going nowhere but up," said Jay Bretzmann, an analyst with International Data Corp. in Framingham, MA. "Anything involving decision support and Internet-type applications tends to be outgrown in a year."

But mainframe shops are unlikely to view the systems as mainframe equivalents because they have an installed base of COBOL applications which they won't want to rewrite, and Sun doesn't offer the systems management software they're familiar with, Bretzmann said. In addition, he said, Sun is missing a job scheduler for running batch jobs and other tasks not typically associated with a Unix environment.


Also, IBM is so entrenched in mainframe shops that other companies will be hard-pressed to win business away on purely technical grounds, said Greg Dery, analyst with Dataquest in San Jose, CA. "IBM has a way of weaning away business from other companies because of long-term customer relationships that defy any new technology developments," he said.

The new server line gives Sun extra ammunition in its fight against HP and IBM in the commercial server market, analysts said. But one analyst added that the intranet/Internet market will be more fertile for Sun than the mainframe migration market, since people will be more receptive to building new a pplications on Ultra servers than to moving mission-critical mainframe applications to them.

"Trying to steal away MIPS from the System 390 will be a very minor demand generator for [Sun]," said Don Young, analyst at Lehman Brothers in New York. "Plugging into the Internet ... will be the real opportunity."

Nevertheless, the Ultra Enterprise servers compare favorably to similar products from competitors IBM, SGI, and HP, according to analysts. "I think the Enterprise server announcement will allow Sun to compete in terms of price-performance not only by lowering price but by raising performance to [levels] comparable to Digital's systems at prices less than HP's," said Brian Richardson, analyst with the Meta Group in Westport, CT.

Sun touted the highest application benchmarks in the industry, with an estimated 17,000 transactions per minute. (It was an honor Sun claimed for one day.) On the audited TPC-C benchmark, the Ultra Enterprise 4000 with 12 processors did well, scoring 11,465.93 tpm-C, with a price of $189 per tpm-C. A 24-processor Enterprise 6000 scored 625 tpc-D on the TPC-D benchmark. On the lower end of the line, an Enterprise 2 with two 200-MHz processors scored 3,107.17 TPC-C transactions per minute. Its price-performance was rated at $141.74 per tpm-C running IBM DB2 Version 2.

(One day later, Digital Equipment surpassed Sun's record with a cluster of four, 32-CPU AlphaServer 8400 servers. Digital's cluster generated a TPC-C mark of 30,390 tpm-C at a pricey $305 per tpm-C on an Oracle7 database.)

But other vendors, notably Digital, still lead in clustering systems together, Bretzmann said. Sun plans to migrate its clustering technology to the new Ultra Enterprise systems in the second half of this year, which will offer high throughput and low response times, Gadre said. "DEC's going to do clustering tomorrow, but we believe that's trying to squeeze the last drop of blood out of an old architecture," Gadre said. "They are boosting throughput at the expense of response time."

The systems get their high performance from Sun's new generation of UltraSPARC processors and a redesigned I/O and memory bus called the Gigaplane. This new architecture provides fast internal transactions between multiple CPUs, memory, and peripherals. It provides four to five times more memory bandwidth, system bandwidth, and I/O bandwidth than the SPARCserver 1000 and SPARCcenter 2000, and several times the bandwidth of competing computers.

Latency has also been reduced by about the same amount, said Gary Beck, director of MP systems for Sun's Enterprise Server Storage Group. Remarkably, its peak throughput is the same as its sustainable throughput: 2.6 gigabytes of data per second. Some of the techniques Sun used to improve I/O performance included eliminating dead cycles by creating a custom hardware driver and reducing the number of data packets while maintaining their size. Sun's old systems were designed with a dead cycle after every two data-transfer cycles to eliminate conflicts in timing between different boards. By creating its own custom driver that's timed to work with the system and eliminating the dead cycle, Sun improved its bandwidth by a third, Beck said. Most servers use ready-made drivers from gate-array vendors, he added.

Sun also improved its sustainable I/O bandwidth by giving each SBus card -- or controller -- its own slot. Because they have their own slot, they can transmit data in parallel. Each SBus card can support two SBuses or two boards, Beck said. The systems contain more slots than Sun's previous systems. The Ultra Enterprise servers can contain as many as 16 slots, compared to the XDbus's maximum number of 10 slots. The slots can also contain CPU cards, with as many as two CPUs on each card, for a total of 30 CPUs per system.

Sun emphasized I/O performance in its design to appeal to commercial-applications customers. I/O performance is often unimportant for scientific applications, which may import a data set and calculate it for a long period of time, Beck said. But database applications are constantly moving data in and out of memory because it's not economical to keep a large amount of data (say, 10 terabytes) in memory, Beck said. The Gigaplane will eventually appear in lower-end systems, possibly including Sun's line of Netra servers, which are preconfigured as Internet servers, he said.

The Gigaplane will also probably support PCI cards sometime later this year, according to IDC's Bretzmann. Beck said it is technically possible for Gigaplane to support boards other than SBus, but would not comment on whether Sun plans to work with the PCI standard.

Other new features which customers should find convenient include the ability to share components between systems, hot swap failed components, and to predict component failure in advance. The four servers share common processors, disk drives, power supplies, and memory, which makes them easily upgradable. The shared components helped Sun to lower prices and will also preserve customer investments, according to Sun. But the company has no plans to make components interchangeable between all its lines, said Anil Gadre, Sun's vice president of corporate marketing.

When asked about its support for 64-bit systems, the company replied that it will support files larger than two gigabytes later this year and will deliver a memory space larger than 32 bits by rewriting the Solaris operating system within one to two years. Current applications will run unmodified on the new operating system.

Storage, software, and services too
Sun also announced the Solstice SyMON monitor, which alerts system administrators of failed parts and predicts failures. If a part fails, customers can replace it without shutting down the system. I/O boards, disk drives, and power supplies can be hot swapped, Gadre said.

24-hour Sun service and support is also now available. According to Sun's Gadre, Sun has been ramping up its service staff over the past three years, since it first branched out from the workstation market to the server market. The company has nearly doubled its support personnel in the last year, said Dataquest's Dery. So the real question is whether Sun will be able to provide the support and service that mainframe customers demand.

"Let's see how this plays out, because Sun looks like it's trying to shift from a numbers game to a solutions game," said Francis Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects Inc. in Washington, D.C. "It boils down to more [than numbers]. It's how you support the customer, how you transition the customer, and how you transition them in this heterogeneous world."

Other announcements included a SPARCstorage Array system, Model 214 RSM, which has redundant parts that can be fixed while the system is running. It also features a hot-pluggable, cableless disk drive. It will support as many as 10 terabytes of data, and starts at $77,800 for a 75.6-gigabyte system. A fully configured version with 176.6 gigabytes of storage costs $116,200. It will ship in May.

The company also introduced a fast ATM network card. The SunATM 622 Adapter offers a speed of 622 megabytes per second, four times faster than existing ATM cards, according to Sun. The card can transmit a 1-gigabyte file in less than 20 seconds. In contrast, it would take about one minute using a 155-megabyte-per-second ATM card or 20 minutes to transfer the same file using a 10-megabyte-per-second Ethernet card, according to the company. The SunATM 622 Adapter will ship in June for $4,995.

The Ultra Enterprise servers will start shipping in May.

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