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Sun Jumps Back Into Blade Business

Sun has already briefed many of its channel partners on a plan to offer blades and an eight-way server based on AMD's x64 Opteron chips.

Sun Microsystems is getting back into the blade business, John Fowler, executive vice president of Sun's Systems Group, said in an interview with CRN Monday.

Fowler, who recently took the helm of the Sun's combined SPARC and x64 product groups as part of a corporate reorganization, said Sun has already briefed many of its channel partners on a plan to offer blades and an eight-way server based on AMD's x64 Opteron chips.

He declined to pinpoint the ship date beyond saying they will come "soon." Sun, which maintains a strong partnership with AMD, may time the new offerings with the arrival of AMD's next-generation Opteron with DDR2 memory, expected in the third quarter.

Fowler said Sun is working on "third-generation" blades with a chassis that has been architected to stay with customers for five to seven years. He said Sun thought carefully about power, I/O, management and backplane requirements necessary to support a system over that time period.

"We have separated the I/O from the blade itself," he said. "That's one of the differences in our design."

Blades, one of the fastest growing server categories in the United States, have been getting more attention of late. IBM Friday, for example, said a Silicon Valley venture capital firm pledged to invest $100 million in its ecosystem.

Folwer said Sun is making sure its blade offering is not only better than the current generation of products but also exceeds capabilities that are available on rackmount servers today.

"They will be more powerful and lower cost than the equivalent rack server and easier to service," he said.

Fowler said Sun will wrap innovative services and channel programs around the midrange servers.

As an example, he said Sun is considering a "fixed cost" upgrade offering for the new blades, where customers pay a set price and receive the "latest technology" on a regular basis.

"This would be more of a subscription model where the latest and greatest doesn't have to have a varying cost on the server," he said.

Fowler's comments come just days before rival Hewlett-Packard is expected to unveil its next-generation modular blades. Vendors are putting more emphasis on blade offerings as Intel and AMD release new chips that are more power efficient and businesses are getting more serious about consolidation and virtualization.

"Blades are a pretty visible market right now," said IDC researcher Jeffrey Hewitt. "[Vendors] are looking to gain a good toe hold in there right now."

Hewitt said the worldwide blade market has been growing at 7 percent to 8 percent a quarter for the past several quarters but is poised for a larger increase.

He expects to see pricing at parity or below typical rackmount servers as volumes increase. Vendors, he said, will likely offer compelling pricing, particularly for customers buying a "half-chassis full" of blades or higher. "The moves will take cost out and make it more competitive to purchase blades rather than stand-alone servers," he said.

Sun originally jumped into the blade server market earlier with a SPARC offering, but withdrew the product last year. The company had said previously it intended to offer blades servers again in 2006.

"Sun's initial products could not match what HP and IBM were delivering at the time," said Charles King, Principal Analyst at Pund-IT. In particular, Sun was using a first-generation form factor and heat issues were a problem, King said.

Fowler, who is credited by some analysts with helping Sun execute effectively on its popular x64 SunFire servers, this week is speaking in detail with journalists for the first time since taking the helm of the server group about one month ago.

He insisted that combining the x64 and SPARC server groups had always been a plan at Sun; it was not a reorg specifically designed by Sun's new CEO Jonathan Schwartz. Sun wanted to put the x64 servers in an independent group to help boost initial sales but the long-term goal had always been to merge them with the SPARC servers at some point, he said.

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