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Sun's New Servers Are Tops In Benchmark Tests

Opteron-based systems are approaching RISC systems in raw performance

Struggling computer maker Sun Microsystems last week took more steps to rectify a years-long problem: what to sell to customers that don't want RISC. Sun unveiled three servers based on Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron chip that set eight records on benchmark tests. That's a compelling argument to buy Sun's industry-standard servers.

But the numbers raise another question. As Sun's commodity hardware closes the performance gap with systems based on Sun's tried-and-true Sparc processors, how does Sun differentiate its mainstay business?

It's new X4600 server, which can house up to eight dual-core Opterons, outperformed all other systems on a benchmark test of high-performance technical computing run by the Standard Performance Evaluation Corp., an industry group. That eclipsed results by a comparable Sun Sparc system, even after accounting for differences in chip clock speeds. The X4600 also beat all other systems running x86 chips with 64-bit extensions (referred to as x64) on a SPEC test for database processing.

Sun's new Blade 8000 also set a record on a test of supply-chain transaction processing for systems that use x86 chips by spitting out 121,228 operations per second. The $20,000 blade server used four dual-core Opteron chips. By comparison, Sun's largest Sparc server, the mammoth E25K, outfitted with 72 RISC chips and a price of $3.5 million, crunched about 1.2 million operations a second.

Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz claims bragging rights

Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz claims bragging rights

Servers that use Opteron are "catching up very quickly in raw performance terms" to Sparc systems, says Graham Lovell, senior marketing director for x64 systems at Sun. RISC isn't standing still, he notes. Sun and IBM are adding more multithreading capabilities to their respective Sparc and Power chips. And Sun's new Sparc Niagara chip managed 74,365 SPEC supply-chain operations per second by packing eight cores onto a single chip. Business customers that buy big Unix iron from Sun also want features like partitioned hardware that lets them isolate apps for reliability and security reasons, Lovell says.

"The growth of our x64 business has been absolutely astounding," Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz says. But it isn't posing a threat to Sparc. The relatively new chief executive has shown he can make tough calls: Sun last month said it would cut 4,000 to 5,000 jobs to reduce costs. Still, Schwartz probably isn't ready to put Sparc out to pasture just yet. During Sun's last fiscal year, Opteron-based systems accounted for just 3% of Sun's $11 billion in revenue.

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