Sun Adds Opteron Rev F Blade Server, Sets Utility Pricing
Published: January 11, 2007
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
While IBM and Hewlett-Packard have come to dominate the blade server market, there is still room for innovation. Or, at least Sun Microsystems is hoping. This week, Sun is adding a new four-socket blade server to its Sun Blade 8000 platform, which is interesting. But for customers who are looking at investing in blade servers and who are tired of the economics of upgrade cycles, the utility-style pricing that Sun is also debuting on these boxes may be more interesting than the iron.
Back in July 2006, Sun launched the Sun Blade 8000 chassis, which is actually Sun's second try at making commercial blade servers. Sun's Netra blade servers telecommunications and service provider companies, which adhere to standards specific to those industries, are popular, but telcos and SPs are looking to deploy the applications they can on enterprise blades, which come to market quicker, have more performance, and cost less money. This is why IBM and HP have been able to sell their respective BladeCenter and BladeSystem machines to these customers, even though they do not adhere to the AdvancedTCA standards.
The Sun Blade 8000 Modular System, which is based on the Opteron processor from Advanced Micro Devices, is a little different from other blade servers out there on the market. With IBM and HP blades, each blade plugs into a chassis that has a backplane for management of blades at the chassis level. Each blade then has mezzanine cards that link to external SAN and NAS arrays for storage and Ethernet or InfiniBand switched fabrics for linking to each other or to outside devices. So there are, in effect, three networks in each blade setup--one for management, one for storage, and one for linking to other devices. With the Sun Blade 8000, the I/O is virtualized and blades plug into a single backplane, which is used to link to I/O cages (which hold PCI Express slots) and to manage the blades. The blade servers in the Sun Blade 8000 have the same ILOM service processor and the same N1 Systems Manager software that all other Sun Fire servers use, too. If you want to add computing capacity, you add a blade and it can see all of the PCI Express peripherals; a blade is not tightly tied to particular storage or network links. The Sun Blade 8000 chassis is large, at a 19U form factor, but it does support up to ten four-socket X8400 blade servers and up to six fully redundant power supplies.
Back in July, Sun's blade servers were based on the Rev E Opteron 800 series processors running at between 2 GHz and 2.6 GHz. These blades had two hot-swap 2.5-inch SAS or SATA drives to store operating systems and other software (if customers want to do it locally) and a RAID mirroring controller onboard. The blades also supported up to 16 GB of DDR1 main memory per CPU socket, for a total of 64 GB per blade. The blade supported Solaris, Linux, and Windows. The Sun Blade 8000 chassis costs $4,995, while an X8400 blade server with four dual-core Opterons and 8 GB of main memory costs $14,600.
This week, Sun is moving up to the dual-core Rev F Opteron 8000 series of processors with the Sun Blade 8420. The Rev F Opterons include AMD's VT hardware-assisted virtualization technology and provide some modest performance improvements over the Rev E Opterons, which Sun used last summer mainly because AMD was late getting the Rev F Opterons out the door. Sun put the Rev F chips into its other Sun Fire "Galaxy" servers late last year.
The basic specs of the 8400 and 8420 blades are the same, even though the Rev E and Rev F sockets are radically different. (Sun designed both boards, but the exact chipsets and the manufacturer are unknown.) Customers can mix and match the old and new blades in the same chassis. But the 8420 seems to be a little cheaper at $13,095 for a machine with four 2.4 GHz Opteron 8216 processors and 8 GB of memory. That's about a 10 percent performance gain for 10 percent less money, or an 18 percent improvement in price/performance. (The faster 2.6 GHz Opteron 8218 and 2.8 GHz Opteron 8220 dual-core chips can also be used in the new 8420 blade.)
If you are a Sun blade server customer who just bought one of the Rev E machines and you are a bit annoyed that it has only been six months since you bought your iron and now Sun has an upgrade out, Sun has a deal for you.
It is called the Sun Refresh Service, and according to Mike McNerney, director of blade server marketing at Sun, the utility-style pricing program was designed specifically to help customers keep their blade server technology at the cutting edge of performance. With the Refresh Service, Sun configured a full chassis, including 10 four-socket blades, Solaris 10, the Java Enterprise System, and basic storage. Such a machine would sell for about $330,000 to buy just the basic hardware and software. To lease such a machine would cost about $18,000 a month, according to McNerney. (This is the number Sun quoted, but it seems very high. I would have expected somewhere around half that figure using normal leasing calculations. I suspect that this rate is for a rack with two Sun Blade 8000s in it.) As IT managers well know, if you are leasing gear and you need to do an upgrade, you pay through the nose for that upgrade. But for $23,000 a month, the Refresh Service is a true subscription price, and it allows customers to upgrade their blades whenever Sun puts a new one in the field without paying any additional fees.
Users cannot upgrade processors, however, as part of this deal--moving from one speed of Rev F Opterons to another one, for instance. That is not the intent of the program. The idea is that Sun expects customers to want to take advantage of the 20 to 40 percent performance improvements that chip makers deliver each year in servers. Sun is anticipating that customers will upgrade under the Refresh Service three or four times in the four-year product life cycle, or roughly every nine to twelve months or so, depending in this case on when AMD gets new chips out the door.
The question is whether a 28 percent premium to subscribe to a service that allows for painless performance upgrades is worth the extra dough. Because of the Sun Blade 8000 design, this is a relatively easy service to deliver, but it will be much more of a challenge on rack servers. Moreover, McNerney says that the cost of the Refresh service is roughly half of cost of doing so many upgrades, since Sun takes the old iron back in trade whenever customers do an upgrade. In the real world, getting budget for such a rapid upgrade cycle is nearly impossible, and data centers are loaded down with gear that is older than IT managers would like.
The Refresh Service is available in the United States now and only through those customers served directly by Sun and only on the Sun Blade 8000. The service will be rolled out across the rest of the world and through customers who work with Sun channel partners later this year. It is unclear when and if Sun will try to offer a similar program on other Opteron or UltraSparc-IV servers.
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