Sun's Fowler Maps The Future Of Computer Systems And Virtualization

Sun on Tuesday is announcing a new suite of virtualization products it believes will enhance its newest server systems.

Darrell Dunn, Contributor

October 16, 2006

7 Min Read

Sun Microsystems' computer systems business had undergone a major transformation in the past few years, beginning with the dramatic shift to offer systems based on x86-based processors from Advanced Micro Devices to the introduction less than a year ago of the first Sparc-based servers based on the UltraSparc T1 processor, code named Niagara, which has eight cores each operating with four independent threads. In 2007, Niagara 2 will enable eight threads on each processing core, for a total of 64 processing elements in a single chip.

As executive VP of Sun's systems Group, John Fowler has also seen the company's server revenue increase 7.7% in the first quarter of 2006, and 15.5% in the second quarter. On Tuesday Fowler and Sun are announcing a new suite of virtualization products they believe will enhance its newest server systems. Fowler talked to InformationWeek about Sun's recent performance and the role of virtualization in the enterprise.

INFORMATIONWEEK: What are the most critical IT issues facing businesses and how far can virtualization go in providing an answer?

Fowler: The traditional issues of system administration and efficient use of hardware still remain. The most recent one that has become top of mind is power efficiency. Escalating power bills and requirements to minimize consumption in peak periods are all of the sudden getting a lot of companies interested in figuring out how virtualization can help them reduce their power usage.

IW: Virtualization can add another level of complexity to IT management. Are IT departments trading server sprawl for virtual sprawl? How big a step forward are we taking here?

Fowler: You are absolutely right. In fact one of the challenges is to make sure you're not just ending up in another area of where you've reduced hardware but increased other complexity.

That is one of the things we've been trying to do specifically around our own operating system. Solaris containers allow you to have multiple applications on a single operating system. If you virtualize with something like VMware you haven't helped that problem because you're adding multiple operating systems.

People need to pay attention to the fact of whether they are actually solving the problem they need to solve.

IW: You talk about the ability to run up to 32 separate applications on an UltraSparc T1 processor, and 64 in the next generation offering. Are there any businesses even approaching an installation with 32 applications running on a single processor?

Fowler: Whether people will actually run 32 or not, I don't know. But people will run say, ten or less. And in the case of the Solaris containers, people can run thousands of containers, and they will run 10 to 100 containers on a single machine.

IW: Hardware-assisted virtualization is emerging. Is it going to make a significant impact on how systems operate?

Fowler: Hardware-based virtualization adds some technology to the processor to make virtualization more efficient and reduce some of the computational overhead to doing virtualization. It's an enabling technology and we've had some virtualization support in Sparc for many years, and now Intel and AMD are adding it to x64. I think what customers will see with hardware-assisted virtualization is an ease of implementing virtualization without performance penalties.

IW: How far has Niagara gone in reviving Sparc as a volume alternative for enterprises, and what impact can virtualization have on accelerating further adoption?

Fowler: One of the things powering the growth is Solaris 10. It not just about the hardware, but also because Solaris 10 is a pretty exciting system. And Niagara 2 will be a substantially more powerful processor. Virtualization is extremely important with Niagara 2 because people will be able to take advantage of the huge available thread count and partition it between applications.

IW: Sun surpassed Dell in server revenue in the second quarter. What will it take to challenge the revenue levels that IBM and Hewlett-Packard have in the server market, or is that a realistic goal?

Fowler: We address somewhat different markets. In particular Sun has not spent a lot of energy addressing the small business market, and IBM, HP, and Dell all have fairly strong small business offerings.

We are very focused on the enterprise, including small and medium enterprises, and have channel partners that reach down into companies with 100s or 1,000s of employees.

A lot of that relates to unit volumes. The small business market is going to purchase a lot of tower servers running Windows, and that's not really a market we are going after.

IW: The Sun systems business today is substantially different from a few years ago. What are the real keys to continued growth and change?

Fowler: We are part the way through a very big transition that started a few years ago, and it comes in three parts. The first part is we opened up Solaris. Solaris used to be just about Sparc and was a closed operating system, and now we've taken it more aggressively to x64 and then we open-sourced it. We now have over 6 million Sparc licenses issued.

The second piece of change strategy was becoming much more aggressive about multi-cores and multi-threads. The engineering efforts we started years ago did not become visible until we released Niagara last year.

A third piece of the puzzle is the aggressive adoption of x64, which opens us up to Windows and Linux in the marketplace, and that business has grown between 50% and 80% per quarter.

Is Sun's systems business different? The entire portfolio, from top to bottom, is fresh in the last 12 months or so, and we have a vastly broader appeal than we had two years ago when we were strictly about Sparc and Solaris.

IW: What is the message you want customer get this week?

Fowler: The primary message is that not only can we offer and service third-party virtualization solutions like VMware and others, we have done deep innovation extending back many years to enable virtualization. Sun has brought technical expertise in not just integrating third party products, which others have done as well, but we have also invented core technologies to enhance virtualization.

IW: Is virtualization the answer to power and cooling issues?

Fowler: Fundamentally if you can take two or more operating systems and run them on a single piece of hardware, the chances are you will save power. Virtualization is one in a whole range of things you can look at to save power. It should be part of a comprehensive strategy that includes hardware infrastructure and how it's managed.

Virtualization is not a panacea and it can bring in management problems. But it is an excellent part of an overall IT strategy to attack several problems from server sprawl, to power and cooling, to software licensing, to system administration.

IW: How do rate virtualization in importance to most enterprises, and what will be the state of virtualization in the enterprise will look like 2010?

Fowler: A virtualization strategy must address their key problem. It might be rapid service deployment in the telecommunications industry. Another industry might be focused on reducing power utilization because they are in a real estate or power crunch.

Each CIO has to have a list of top issues, and look at virtualization as a technology that could in fact solve that pain point. So you don't want a virtualization strategy. You want an application and infrastructure management strategy into which virtualization as a technology can help you.

In terms of what will happen in 2010, clearly hardware-assisted virtualization will reach all processors, and technologies like the Xen [hypervisor] will be integrated into operating systems. In 2010, businesses will be using virtualization across the enterprise as a matter of course.

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