Sun boosts new servers with flash memory

IBM deal or not, Sun releases Nehalem-based systems that tap flash for faster app response

Sun Microsystems Inc. will test whether it can sell new servers at the same time that it may be trying to sell the company.

Sun, which reportedly discussed a possible acquisition with IBM before the talks broke down earlier this month, today announced six servers based on Intel Corp.'s new Xeon 5500 processors along with technology that it says can significantly speed up application response: flash memory.

Added between the hard disk drive and the main memory, flash memory ranging from 25GB to 50GB is said by Sun to allow the system to bypass I/O bottlenecks for rapid processing of table sorting, for instance, and fast bootup.

Sun is selling four new rack-mountable servers, all with two processor sockets, plus two blades — one with two sockets and the other with four. The company has also developed a door that can cool server racks rated up to 35kW using either water or chilled gas.

Rich Partridge, an analyst at Ideas International Inc., said Sun has been a leader in utilizing flash technology in its products. For instance, the vendor optimized ZFS, the file system in its Solaris operating system, to take advantage of flash memory.

Partridge said he expects customers to closely scrutinize Sun because of the reported talks with IBM. But, he added, the new servers are industry standard systems that Sun had developed in "a combination that others don't offer yet, or offer to the same extent."

Some customers do buy a vendor's technology even if they are uncertain about its direction. For instance, Silicon Graphics Inc., a much smaller company than Sun, announced a $40 million deal in February with the U.S. Department of Defense to buy technologies it was producing based on Nehalem chips from Intel. Two months later, SGI was sold to Rackable Systems Inc. after filing for bankruptcy protection.

SGI focused on the high-performance computing (HPC) market, something Sun is also aiming at with this offering, although not exclusively. HPC users may be less likely than most to pay attention to the prospects of Sun being sold and more likely to focus on what the new technology can do, said Jean Bozman, an analyst at IDC. In the HPC market, customers "are looking for the fastest thing they can use," Bozman said.

The prices on the rack-mounted servers announced today — the Sun Fire x2270, x4170, X4270 and X4275 — range from $1,488 to $3,645. Pricing wasn't immediately available on the other new products, which also include a high-end workstation called the Sun Ultra 27 that supports up to 12GB of main memory and 4GB of graphics memory.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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