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Sun debuts new clusters at Unix Expo

Faster bus, better software bolster Sun's cluster line

By Mark Cappel

October  1996
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New York -- A cluster is a collection of computers that prop each other up in times of trial. The degree to which one defines "times of trial" depends entirely on the cleverness of a cluster's software. Before October 8, Sun's cluster product line was not very broad, nor was it very fast, and perhaps worst of all, it was not very clever. The line was not a hit.

Sun hopes its new, high-powered Ultra Enterprise servers, combined with a new, high-speed interconnect, and slightly smarter software will make its clusters more appealing. The company also promises expansions to both the hardware and software in the next two years that will make its clusters more capable and flexible.

On the hardware side, the Ultra Enterprise Cluster family starts with a pair of UltraSPARC 2 desktop computers each sporting one or two CPUs. On the high end, Sun bundles a pair of Ultra Enterprise 6000 servers in a cluster. Each 6000 supports up to 26 CPUs and 5 terabytes of hard disk capacity. In between the high and low end, three other Ultra Enterprise models round-out the product line.

The clusters are connected by a high-speed, Scalable Coherent Interface (SCI), which is an open standard originally designed to interconnect supercomputers. For Sun's cluster, the company went to Dolphin Interconnect Solutions, a Westlake Village, CA company to supply the hardware. Dolphin's SBus cards link the two computers at a theoretical maximum pace of 250 megabytes (yes, megabytes) per second with 4 microseconds latency. In actual practice, the SCI is throttled by each computer's bandwidth limitations, and the software used to manage the communications. SCI is three or four times faster than the Ethernet switch used in the first version of Sun's cluster.

On the software side, Sun's cluster technology, called Solstice HA 1.2, is limited to providing automatic fail-over for Informix, Oracle, and Sybase relational databases. Sun has signed a deal with BEA Systems, the maker of the Tuxedo transaction monitor, to port Tuxedo to Solaris. Sun also outlined an ambitious release schedule for Solstice HA. Future versions of Solstice HA promise to be more flexible and capable, and include capabilities found in more mature clusters, such as Digital's VMS-based VAXcluster.


Sun cluster roadmap
1996 1997 1998

Job scheduler
Multi-domain support
Additional application agents
Up to 4 nodes. New cluster nodes. Up to 16 nodes. New cluster nodes.
Integrated disaster recovery features
Java cluster management tools
Cluster file system
Fault management APIs
Additional application agents
UltraSPARC Solaris 2.6
Application scripting
Workgroup to datacenter clusters
NFS, Informix, Oracle, Sybase, and Internet services
UltraSPARC Solaris 2.5.1
Source: Sun Microsystems

Sun is distinguishing its clusters with friendliness for the systems designer who needs to get the cluster running and the administrators who need to keep them that way. For designers, Sun is emphasizing a committment to completeness, and minimizing the number of steps, decisions, and switches a customer needs to throw before the cluster comes to life. Sun officials take pains to point out Sun does not want to supply an Erector Set.

For systems administrators, Sun includes a management console that places all of a cluster's software-configurable knobs and levers on one GUI, which can be run remotely. Sun states it will sign an agreement guaranteeing a cluster's up-time, with financial penalties if Sun can't keep its word.

In related news
Sun also announced a new tape library using Exabyte's new 40-gigabyte 8mm tape drive. Sun claims the dual-drive, 20-cartridge library will back up 22 gigabytes per hour. Prices for the SPARCstorage Library 8/400 start at $27,000. A single-drive, desktop version costs $7,125.
--Mark Cappel

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