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Sun Broadens Its Blade Server Lineup

Published: June 6, 2007

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

For all of the talk about the blade server form factor in the server space, blades have not grown anywhere near as fast as many had expected and after the failures of a number of players, the market is dominated in a disproportionate fashion by Hewlett-Packard and IBM. While Dell, Fujitsu, NEC, Sun Microsystems, and a number of players are trying to get into the game--some for the second time, in fact--none has broken out sufficiently in blades to make this a three horse race. With the "Constellation" blade server announcements that Sun is making today, the company hopes to change that.

Sun will be bringing some breadth and depth to its blade server offerings today at a big shindig that the company's top brass is hosting in Washington, D.C. The new Blade 6000 chassis and its related blade servers, which sport Sun's own Sparc T1 processors as well as Xeon chips from Intel and Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices, are the younger siblings to the Blade 8000 Modular System that the company announced last July. The Blade 8000 box, which was initially created using AMD's dual-core Rev E Opteron chips and had four sockets on each blade, is a hefty box by blade server standards. The Blade 6000 machines are based on a two-socket blade design, and fit in a more compact 10U chassis compared to the 19U behemoth that is the Blade 8000 chassis.

According to Mike McNerney, director of the blade server product line at Sun, the company's Blade 6000 chassis holds 10 blade servers in a 10U chassis. This is not particularly dense by the standards of some blade servers already on the market, but it is perfectly normal density given the amount of stuff that gets packed onto a blade and in the chassis these days. What Andy Behctolsheim, the chief technology officer for the X64 server designs at Sun, was striving for with the Constellation line of blade servers is not density, but longevity.

"We are designing machines to provide performance as well as a future-proof architecture," says McNerney, adding that this chassis is expected to be in the field and useful until 2012. "We did not optimize the design for processor density."

Which is probably a good thing anyway, since data centers have not been able to cope with the hot spots created by dense blade servers. With a rack of blade servers fully loaded with memory, disks, and other features consuming 15 kilowatts to 20 kilowatts of juice--and blowing off most of that as heat after the computation gets done--it is getting difficult to get rid of the heat blade servers have concentrated inside their racks. Air-cooled data centers were not designed to cope with such concentrated heat, so being able to shrink the size of a server does not always help get more computing done, ironically.

What Sun has done with the blades that go into the Blade 6000 chassis is pump up the main memory that these blades can hold. Sun has done this for two reasons. First, multicore processors require more main memory to run in a balanced way. And, moreover, server virtualization hypervisors need lots of main memory to run efficiently. Since many blade servers are also being virtualized, big gobs of main memory on each blade are what customers are asking for.

Sun is announcing three different types of blades for the Blade 6000 chassis. The T6300 blade is based on its own "Niagara" Sparc T1 multicore processor, which is only available in single-socket configurations. (The Niagara-2 chip will have SMP electronics in it to gang up two chips on a single board.) The T6300 blade has eight DIMM slots and supports up to 32 GB of main memory. Sun is offering four different configurations of the T6300 blade, which vary by the number of Sparc cores activated on the T1 chip, the speed of the cores, and the amount of base main memory on the blade. The small T6300 has six cores running at 1 GHz and 4 GB of main memory; it costs $5,995. A medium configuration has eight 1 GHz cores activated (the maximum supported by the T1 chip), but running at 1 GHz; this blade has 8 GB of memory (four 2 GB DIMMs) and costs $13,995. A large configuration of the T6300 blade comes with eight cores running at 1.2 GHz and eight 2 GB DIMMs, for a total of 16 GB of memory; it costs $19,125. The extra large configuration costs an incredible $41,995 and includes eight T1 cores running at the top speed of 1.4 GHz and 32 GB of main memory (using 4 GB DIMMs, which are not cheap). This top-end T1 processor probably throws off around 75 watts of heat.

The Blade 6000 is the first Sun box that will sport Intel processors, too, and is the result of a partnership between Sun and Intel that was announced in January. Under that deal, Sun is using Intel's Xeon chips in its "Galaxy" rack-mount and Constellation blade servers, and Intel is embracing Solaris as a Unix of choice on the X64 platform.

The X6250 blade is a two-socket blade server that plugs into the Blade 6000 chassis and uses a range of Intel quad-core chips as well as a single dual-core chip. This blade also uses Fully Buffered DIMM (FB-DIMM) main memory, not the DDR2 main memory used in the Opteron-based Galaxy and Constellation machines. The least expensive X6250 blade comes with a single "Clovertown" quad-core Xeon 5320 processor running at 1.86 GHz and with an 80-watt thermal design point (TDP). With 2 GB of main memory, this blade costs $3,695. (That thermal rating does not include the heat from a memory controller, which runs another 20 watts or so. Both the Sparc T1 and Opteron processors have their memory controllers on chip, so the TDP ratings cover this extra bit of electronics.) For customers who have heat issues in their data center, Sun is peddling a blade using slower low-voltage Clovertown L5310 parts, which run at 1.6 GHz but have a TDP of only 50 watts. With two L5310 chips and 8 GB of main memory, this X6520 blade costs only $5,995. Sun also has a blade with two dual-core "Woodcrest" Xeon 5160 chips running at 3 GHz for customers who need the highest single-threaded performance, which costs $6,595 with two processors (that's four cores) installed and 8 GB of memory. A large configuration of the X6250 blade with two 2.33 GHz Clovertown chips and 32 GB of memory (that's 16 2 GB DIMMs) costs $15,995, and the heftiest configuration has two Clovertown Xeon 5355 chips running at 2.66 GHz with eight 4 GB DIMMs (which is half of the maximum capacity allowed on the board) for $25,995.

At Intel Developer Forum in Beijing in March, Sun was previewing a four-socket blade server based on Intel's "Tulsa" Xeon MP processors that plugs into the Blade 8000 chassis. This box was not announced today.

Sun is, of course, also still enthusiastic about AMD's Opteron processors, but for some bizarre reason is only touting the standard Opteron 2000 series Rev F parts in the Constellation blade servers. Sun is using the 2 GHz Opteron 2212, the 2.8 GHz Opteron 2218, and the 2.8 GHz Opteron 2220 parts in the X6220 blades that plug into the Blade 6000 chassis. These all have a TDP of 95 watts, but AMD sells dual-core chips that get down into the 68 watt range as well. Why Sun is not endorsing these Opteron HE parts is a bit odd, but maybe it is because they can give both the Xeon and T1 chips a drubbing in terms of performance per watt on some workloads.

A small configuration of the X6220 blade has two Opteron 2212 chips and 4 GB of DDR2 main memory; it costs $3,995. A medium configuration has two Opteron 2218 chips and 8 GB of memory; it costs $5,595. One of the reasons why those prices are so low is that these two blades, which have 16 memory slots, are using very inexpensive 1 GB DIMMs. A large configuration of the X6220 blade comes with two Opteron 2220 processors and 16 GB of memory (using 2 GB DIMMs); it costs $8,395. Sun did not provide a price for an X6220 with the top-end 3 GHz Opteron part and 32 GB of memory using 4 GB DIMMs, but it would be a pricey machine.

When the quad-core "Barcelona" chips are ready for market later this summer, these chips will plug right into the Constellation X6220 boards. Sun is ready for Barcelona, and AMD needs to get the chip out the door.

The Blade 6000-C10 chassis costs $4,995, and like the Blade 8000 chassis, it has externalized PCI-Express peripheral slots that are separated from the blades and virtualized, which makes it a lot easier to change which peripherals are linked to which blades. The blades have room for four 2.5-inch SAS drives too, and can also use SATA disks, which are larger.

Sun is supporting Solaris 10 on its Sparc T1 blade, and Solaris, Windows, and Linux on its Xeon and Opteron blades.

The Sun Refresh Service, which was announced in January of this year when Sun put the Rev F Opteron 8000 series processors into the Blade 8000 chassis, is also available on the Blade 6000 machines. With this service, customers are allowed to upgrade the blades in their chasses three times in a 42-month period. Sun is charging from 25 percent to 30 percent premium over lease rates on the Blade 8000 and 6000 machines for this automatic upgrade option on the hardware. But considering the cost of upgrading blades (rather than just changing out processors, which is not covered in this services), this is not much of a premium at all. Then again, swapping out processors may be cheaper for a lot of customers. It really depends on the workloads and how they are changing.

The other interesting thing about the Constellation blades is that they all have their own service processor, just like a modern rack server does these days. And that means they can be managed at the server instance level, not at the chassis level, and that they can be managed using any tool that customers might already have. Sun is not restricting customers to use its blade-based tools to manage the Constellation boxes, but it does, of course, hope that customers use its N1 systems management tools.


Sun Adds Opteron Rev F Blade Server, Sets Utility Pricing

Sun, Intel Form Alliance for Xeon Servers and Workstations

Sun Launches Smaller Opteron Blade, Partners with NEC

Sun Delivers Sparc T1 in Netra and ACTA Blade Servers

Sun Fleshes Out Galaxy Opteron Server Line

Sun Begins Shipping Opteron-Based ACTA Blade

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