Fowler Talks Up Sun's X86 Prospects
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Sun Microsystems has a new X86 server division, called the Network Systems Group, and a new executive vice president for that unit, John Fowler. Like the new president and chief operating officer, Jonathan Schwartz, Fowler comes from the Sun Software business. Specifically, he was the chief technology officer for that unit. But don't get the wrong idea. Fowler knows servers, and more important, he knows all the right people at Sun who know them as well or better than he does.
Recently, Fowler called up just to talk shop. Like most Sun executives, he speaks bluntly and cannot answer a lot of questions about future X86 server product roadmaps. Sun's fiscal year closes at the end of June, so the company is none too eager to talk about future products as it is trying to close out its biggest quarter for sales.
For instance, Fowler could not say much about Sun's future Sun Fire V40z four-way Opteron server, which was expected a few weeks ago as part of the quarterly announcements. (The word on the street is that these machines are due to be launched in the third week of July, with general availability at the end of July, by the way.) But he did raise the curtain a little on what Sun will be doing with the Opteron and Xeon platforms, and how much leeway he has in order to do what he thinks is best for Sun to not become just an "also ran" in the X86 server business.
"Coming from nowhere, as we are in the X86 market," Fowler explained, "we can do almost anything." As you might imagine, Fowler is absolutely behind the subscription-based pricing that Schwartz is championing for all Sun products, including servers. He is particularly enthusiastic about this approach for a good reason. "If we have Solaris on the box, it gives me the option of picking up margin on the whole software stack."
Fowler did say that the Sun Fire V40z was coming and that it will indeed be a four-way Opteron box that supports PCI-Express peripheral connections and 4 GB memory DIMMs. This machine sounds suspiciously like the Newisys 4300 server, a four-way Opteron box that fits in a 3U chassis that currently supports up to 32 GB of main memory and will also support 64 GB of main memory when 4 GB DIMMs become available. The Newisys 4300 has six hot-swap drive bays and six PCI-X slots. Last summer, Newisys was acquired by OEM hardware maker Sanmina-SCI just as it was preparing to launch this four-way box. Newisys is widely believed to be the supplier of the iron that is essentially the Sun Fire V20z and V40z, although neither Sun nor Newisys has ever confirmed this. The delay in getting the Sun Fire V40z out the door might have to with moving the Newisys machine from PCI-X to PCI-Express peripherals (they are not the same thing; the latter has a lot more to do with bandwidth).
The other ace up Sun's sleeve is Andy Bechtolsheim, one of the original founders of Sun, who was the company's original chief technology officer, and who just came back to the company when Sun acquired super-secret Opteron server startup Kealia, just after it announced it would be backing the Opteron. Fowler and Bechtolsheim have apparently been given the go-ahead to shake things up in the X86 market.
"System design is not about cranking the clock speed any more," explained Fowler. "We can build different memory hierarchies and use different interconnections to make different kinds of servers. We really do have the freedom to do what we want. There are no restrictions on scale or pricing on what Network Systems can do. And let me tell you, we are going to do some things differently. We're going to have some fun, and I promise that we are not going to be boring."
Fowler said that while Sun was happy to be selling the Xeon-based Sun Fire V60z and V65x two-way servers, the company does not plan to roll out a four-way Xeon box. Bringing up the possibility of a Sun-branded Itanium server was laughable, given all the vitriol Sun has spewed about it in recent years. So there is no point in even bringing up the idea, unless something goes terribly wrong with the Opteron line. If anything, Sun will back the 64-bit Xeons if it has to have a fall-back position in the X86 server market. But Xeon is, from now on, going to play third fiddle to Opteron and Sparc, as far as Solaris is concerned.
Fowler has nothing against the Xeons, mind you. The server designs Sun is working on could incorporate Xeons. But Fowler says the price/performance advantage of the Opterons, for both Sun (which is presumably getting great prices on Opteron chips) and its customers, doesn't make Xeon as attractive as Opteron. "We'll be primarily an Opteron shop from here on out. This is just a practical choice," he said.
The reason why is that the Opteron design has lower memory latency and higher bandwidth, whether you are talking 32-bit or 64-bit X86 code. Fowler says that the real (and large) performance differences between the Opterons and the Xeons do not show up in the public benchmarks that have been released so far, because the tests have a lot of tuning in order to optimize cache sizes and branches. "With real-world applications we have tested, the uglier the code, the bigger the advantage is for Opteron over Xeon."
Fowler said that Sun has publicly committed to offering Opteron machines with one, two, and four processors, and he dodged the question about whether Sun will deliver an eight-way Opteron box. (No one has done it yet, which is a bit of a mystery, since the Opteron design is specially designed to use NUMA-like clustering to make eight-way machines from four two-way boards relatively easily.)
Fowler said Network Systems Group will be trying to create Opteron systems that promote an idea he is calling "diagonal scaling," which seeks to strike a balance between the vertical scaling of big SMP systems, like the Sparc-based Sun Fire machines, and the horizontal scaling of Unix and Linux clusters. In many cases, what workloads really need are big four-way or even eight-way nodes that are clustered together reasonably tightly, using very fast interconnection, but because they are clusters, they are not as costly to build as big SMP boxes. "The more operating systems and the more boxes you have, the more cost you have to bear," he said. "The trick will be to strike a balance." That could mean big Opteron boxes clustered together using Sun's own WildCat interconnection (developed for its Sparc servers) or using InfiniBand links (Sun has been a supporter of InfiniBand). Or it could mean, of course, that Sun has something else entirely up its sleeve.