Sun unveils UltraSparc 4 chip, Opteron servers

The new processor uses chip multithreading technology to boost performance

Sun Microsystems Inc. moved today to strengthen its existing systems by releasing a new generation of UltraSparc chips while also taking its server line in a new direction with Opteron-based machines.

Sun's chip, the UltraSparc 4, is a new-generation processor that uses chip multithreading technology to boost throughput and application performance at a lower price, the company said. UltraSparc 3 users will be able to upgrade to the new chip without swapping boxes.

The UltraSparc 4 is "essentially doubling the performance in place," said Clark Masters, executive vice president for enterprise systems at Sun.

According to information on Sun's Web site, customers should see performance improvements of between 60% and 100% of the throughput of the older processor, depending on application workloads.

Rich Partridge, an analyst at D.H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, N.Y., said Sun, as well as Hewlett-Packard Co., have both found ways of getting more performance from their hardware. For users, "the application might well determine which approach gives the most efficient use of the hardware," he said.

Sun also detailed pricing and upgrade costs for Sun Fire E servers based on the new chip; prices start at $50,000 and rise to $1 million, depending on configuration.

Sun has big plans for the Opteron chip, which can run 32- and 64-bit applications, and expects to ultimately release an eight-processor server. The company is working with Advanced Micro Devices Inc., which manufacturers the chip, to build application and tool support among third-party vendors.

Sun is offering customers Linux and Solaris x86 operating systems on Opteron but said its servers will also be certified to run Windows. The V20z, starting at $2,800, includes its the company's Java Enterprise System.

Dan Agronow, vice president of technology at Atlanta-based The Weather Channel Interactive Inc., now uses IBM's Opteron servers but said he welcomes additional options from Sun and HP. "If I can also buy [Opteron] from HP and Sun, that just makes it a more compelling choice," said Agronow, "because now I have more vendors to choose from, which typically drives down the price."

There have been reports that HP is preparing to offer Opteron, but the company hasn't confirmed that possibility. HP yesterday announced a series of Itanium-based servers, including low-end offerings, that appeared to signal a strengthening of its commitment to Intel Corp.'s chip (see story).

IBM started selling the Opteron chip last year, focusing on high-performance technical computing users. But the company said it's also making sales to lower-end users.

Agronow said Opteron has made it possible to boost the performance of his Oracle applications without increasing licensing costs, which are pegged to performance. The key was finding the best performance at the lowest gigahertz rate, and what he found through testing was that the 1.4-GHz Opteron offered performance equivalent to 2.8-GHz Xeon chip.

Agronow's advice to potential users is to test Opteron.

"That's what nailed it on the head for me. I didn't have to accept somebody's study or test case," he said.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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