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Can Sun mature from Xeon boy to x86 man?

Fowler struts his stuff

Sun Microsystems' newest EVP John Fowler has either an incredibly easy or incredibly difficult task ahead of him. It all depends on your perspective.

Earlier this week, Sun officially placed Fowler in charge of Network Systems. The new role thrusts Fowler, a software specialist, into the uncomfortable position of shepherding Sun's Xeon- and Opteron-based servers. You know - the kit meant to make Sun a success story again but that disobediently hasn't sold well.

"It's true that we are starting from a relatively low base in this particular market," Fowler said, during an interview. "But that means we can afford to be or dare to be different."

Hey, darlin', what's your sign?

Smack a gold star on that statement because it's one of the few 100 percent true quotations you'll see from an executive vice president. (We expected truth from Fowler when he was a lowly CTO - Ed.)

For the last couple of years, Sun has been approaching the x86 server market with all the skill of a horny adolescent male "courting" a female target. There are some sweet moments but for the most part the act is crude, transparent and unsuccessful. (Speak for yourself - Ed.) Sun simply offered one not very exciting Xeon server, insisted it could beat Dell on price and hoped for the best.

Now, however, Fowler is heading up a group that has been freshly armed with Xeon-based servers, Athlon-based blades and a two processor Opteron box. By the end of this year, Sun will add a one and two processor workstation and a four processor Opteron server. Then, in the next calendar year, Sun also plans to ship an eight processor Opteron server.

Think of all this as the adolescent putting a conquest or two under his belt and developing a certified swagger. A swagger that needs testing in the field, but a swagger nonetheless.

These are my servers! Hear me roar!

Fowler insists that these new products will garner serious attention.

While Sun's current Opteron box is an off-the-shelf Newisys design, the upcoming systems are all being designed by Andy Bechtolsheim - one of the company's co-founders who returned to the fold earlier this year. Bechtolsheim handles much of the Volume Systems hardware work, while Fowler looks after software and business issues.

Both men are hard core geeks in the best sense of the word, which is a radical change from sales schtick-heavy Neil Knox, the former volume systems chief, who was kindly escorted from the company last month. Unlike Knox, the new Volume Systems heads are able to concentrate on x86 gear alone. David Yen, Sun's processor chief, has moved the low-end SPARC server business under his charge, putting all the SPARC gear on one side of the house.

And on top of the straight servers, Fowler can also play with systems such as the networking switch Sun acquired from Pirus or the Nauticus security servers that are designed to handle very specific tasks. Then add on Sun's Java Enterprise System (JES) server software stack at the low price of $100 per employee, and you are looking at something vendors like to call a "solution" or "network computing bundle" - a concept more common in the RISC than x86 space.

"Other server vendors make you buy the middleware stack, security and networking products separately," Fowler said. "We're going to be able to package these things in a unique way."

The total package

Sun would not dare say it, but you get the sense the company is trying to take the commodity out of commodity hardware. The Sun model probably will not appeal to do-it-yourselfers who just want plain, cheap systems from Dell. It could, however, appeal to a large company that is willing buy much of what it needs from one shop at an almost subscription style price.

If you don't quite follow, look at what Sun has already done with its V20z Opteron server. At launch, Sun offered a promotion where developers could get a "free server" by paying $1,499 a year for three years to cover the hardware, Sun's developer stack and enterprise software stack. It's a weird model but one that Sun hopes will be effective against companies such as HP and Dell who have limited software stacks.

Of course, Sun has been selling this story for quite a while - something Fowler is well aware of. But the executive insists that Sun actually has the hardware now to back up its vision.

What makes Fowler's job easy is that Sun is starting from such a low baseline in the x86 market. Any increase in sales will look pretty good, right? The tougher part of the job is that Sun's future largely hinges on how well this product can redefine the company's image and place in the server market. No pressure, John. ®


Conveniently, Sun pushed out a couple bits of related news for this story.

First up, Sun put out a list of 15 new OEMs that are backing Solaris x86. The list includes vendors such as ASA Computers, Continuous Computing Corporation, EBS, Pinnacle Data Systems, PSSC, Think Computer Products and Tokyo Forex Financial. Sun now has over 200 systems on its Solaris x86 hardware compatibility list.

Secondly, Sun announced a new Sun Cluster Open Storage Program that lets storage vendors self-certify their gear with Sun's software. EMC, IBM and Network Appliance have all already signed on.

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