Update: Sun, Intel announce server pact

Sun Microsystems Inc. today announced an alliance with Intel Corp., a move that will greatly expand Sun’s involvement with the chip maker and continue its slow and long embrace of the x86 world.

Although some 70% of Solaris x86 users are already running the operating system on Intel-based platforms, Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz said, the deal cements the relationship between the two companies.

In a teleconference, Sun and Intel officials detailed what they called a long-term collaboration to optimize Solaris on Intel processors, as well as conduct some joint research and development efforts.

"Solaris is evolving as a mainstream operating system," said Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO and president, explaining why Intel wants a closer relationship with Sun. "It is becoming the mission-critical Unix for Xeon," he said.

Sun's Schwartz said, "It's evident that customers wanted us to work together, and so clearly we wanted to do exactly that," he said.

Intel has agreed to promote Solaris and, in return, Sun will "be building a complete line of Xeon servers as well as workstations," said Schwartz. Sun will start shipping systems by June.

What that holds for the future, only "time will tell," said Schwartz, adding, "this is really a comprehensive relationship."

"All the customers are demanding more flexibility and interoperability -- that’s also a strong argument for us to work together," said Otellini.

The vendors will also synchronize releases around chip and operating system upgrades. "We want Solaris to absolutely scream on Xeon," said Schwartz.

Sun’s historic hardware focus has been on its UltraSparc line of servers. That began to change in 2003, when the company announced plans to sell x86 servers based on processors from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. In 2004, Sun settled antitrust battles with Microsoft Corp., and the settlement agreement included a pledge by both vendors to improve system platform interoperability.

Sun has faced longstanding pressure to offer x86-based servers because of decisions made by customers such as Don McPhee, director of technical services for Atlantic Blue Cross Care in Moncton, New Brunswick.

McPhee said the health insurer, which is using Sun UltraSparc systems for its Web tier, is moving to a "more commodity-based infrastructure" based on x86 systems running either AMD or Intel processors.

McPhee said when his firm started using Web applications in 2000, Sun dominated and vendors were targeting applications for Solaris. "Things have changed," said McPhee, "We just went with the momentum."

McPhee said he will go with the vendor that offers the best deal; Sun's x86 AMD servers are in the running, he added.

Stephen Josselyn, an IDC analyst, said Sun, like every other vendor selling RISC-based systems in the low end, is "fighting that same battle" against x86.

"As we look at this from a Unix perspective, that seems to be the trend -- customers are moving away from the RISC/Unix environment and are choosing the more commodity-based x86 platforms," Josselyn said.

But Sun is also working on its low-end UltraSparc-based products, in particular its Niagara offering. Niagara is an eight-core, multithreaded UltraSparc chip that will be offered as an alternative to x86 platforms. Sun also open-sourced its Solaris platform, and has been especially interested in seeing it used on x86 systems.

Sun is also telling customers that it is continuing to invest in high-end UltraSparc systems; last week, it announced that it was on schedule to release its multicore Rock processor, which is designed for databases and other memory-intensive workloads, by mid-2008.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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