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Sun Debuts x86 Blades Geared for Network

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MENLO PARK, Calif. – Putting that little IBM incident behind it, and insisting reporters not ask any questions about it, Sun Microsystems today introduced a new series of Nehalem-based blades with integrated networking connectivity, a strategy similar to what Cisco announced for its new blades.

Sun (NASDAQ: JAVA), of course, will tell you it has a very different offering than Cisco’s (NASDAQ: CSCO) Unified Computing System, announced last month.

For starters, where Cisco likes to stamp “Unified” on all of its products, Sun calls its products “Open.” This new platform is part of Sun’s Open Network Systems strategy, and that’s also a point of separation between the two firms.

“The technology we’ve done here is open,” said John Fowler, executive vice president of systems at Sun, in a briefing with journalists and analysts here at Sun’s campus. “Cisco’s network technology, blades and interconnects are all proprietary to Cisco.”

Also, Sun highlighted Cisco’s weakness in storage, a market in which it plays, in particular its emphasis on flash-based storage. One of the key elements of the new blades is the use of flash-based drives, no different than a solid state drive (SSD) but in a memory stick format instead of a drive.

The SSD sticks plug right onto the motherboard, hold 24GB of data and serves mostly as a cache drive to speed up performance. They can handle more than 20,000 IOPS (define), ten times that of a hard drive, said Fowler, but draw only one watt of power.

To Infiniband… and beyond

Another major element of the announcement is the Sun Blade 6000 Virtual Network Express Module (NEM), a 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE), zero management, rapid network virtualization provisioning network module.

By plugging into the blade chassis and using PCI-Express connectors, as well as Sun’s own networking chips, the amount of cabling to connect the blade to the network is drastically reduced.

This will allow for a significant reduction in cables, because all that’s needed is uplinks from each rack chassis to the main datacenter network. No managed switch is needed.

It also means the back plane has the ability to connect to multiple PCI-Express hosts. A single chip in the NEM case makes a range of blades think they have their own 10 gigabit connection without having to manage it. In a virtualized system, you can move and restart virtual machines easily thanks to Infiniband’s high speed throughput, Fowler noted.

As part of this, Sun is previewing a large-scale, non-blocking 40Gbit switch, called the Magnum 9. The Magnum switches are focused on the high performance computing market, where Infiniband is used, but Sun is getting more and more enterprise customer interest in Infiniband, said Fowler.

If 10 Gbits isn’t enough throughput, Sun is introducing the Sun Blade 6048 Quad Data Rate InfiniBand NEM (QNEM) that quad pumps the data, all through PCI-Express connectors. The Modular System can scale from a single chassis to compute clusters with more than 5,000 nodes.

Sharpening its blades

Sun trails IBM and HP in the blade market by a fair distance, but it isn’t giving up. Its blades are coming in 1U, 2U and 4U form factors. All come with four Core i7-based Xeon 5500 series processors.

For example, Sun claims the 1U Sun Fire X4170 server delivers the performance of a 4U system while saving 75 percent in rack space and consuming 60 percent less energy, at half the price of competing, pre-Nehalem 4-socket, 4U systems.

The Sun Fire X4275 server is positioned as a streaming multimedia server with up to 12TB of raw storage at less than $1/GB of storage and offer significant space and energy savings.

Sun claims the Sun Blade X6275 server module is the first blade server to support on-board quad data rate (QDR) InfiniBand for 40 Gbits of throughput, ideal for performance and HPC applications.

All told, Sun will introduce six blade server modules, plus a new workstation, the Sun Ultra 27 workstation, which is also Nehalem-based and uses the nVidia FX5800 Quadro processor. The Ultra 27 workstation supports up to 12GB of main memory and 4GB of graphics memory.

Sun has updated its Solaris operating system to both take advantage of the new functionality in the Core i7 Xeons, such as hyperthreading and the QuickPath fast connections. Also, the ZFS file system has been optimized to better support the SSD drives in the blades.

Fowler said the new features of the blades are not confined to just the Nehalem generation. Eventually, technologies like the 40GBit Infiniband and SSD support will find their way onto UltraSparc and AMD Opteron-based systems as well.

Sun has not yet disclosed pricing. The new blade servers are expected to ship sometime in the next few months.

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