Sun Adds Intel-Based HPC Server to Portfolio

By Michael Feldman

August 20, 2008

Since welcoming Intel hardware into the company’s product mix 18 months ago, Sun Microsystems has come out with six Xeon processor-based servers. This week the company added two more, including an HPC-only server.

At IDF this week, Sun announced the two new offerings: the Sun Fire X2250 and Sun Fire X4250. The latter is a storage-laden 2U rack server targeted to back-office database and Web applications. This new offering sports up to 16 SAS drive bays and 16 DIMM slots.

But the one we’re really interested in here is the X2250, a 1U rack server that Sun is aiming squarely at the high performance computing market. As it turns out, this is Sun’s first Intel-equipped server built exclusively for HPC customers. Sun’s current 1U Xeon box, the Sun Fire X4150, is a more general-purpose server, which includes a lot of mainstream enterprise features, like a redundant power supply, memory RAS, and room for loads of disk storage. Of course, Sun has had AMD-equipped HPC gear for awhile. The Opteron-based X2200 server is the AMD counterpoint to the new Xeon box. Now with the X2250 in the catalog, Sun has both flavors of x64 to offer to the HPC crowd.

The X2250 is a bare bones 1U server based on Intel’s Stoakley platform, which uses the current 45nm Xeon chips. As you may remember, Stoakley supports Intel’s fastest front side bus (1600 MHz) to date, in order to keep the CPU and memory on best speaking terms. The server itself offers up to eight 800 MHz DIMMs for a total of 32GB of memory. Customers are able to outfit the X2250 with 120, 80 or 50 watt Xeons, and can choose an 8-core configuration (using two quad-core Xeon 5400s) or a 4-core setup (using two dual-core Xeon 5200s).

Prices for the X2250 start at $1,495, which should make it competitive against the similarly-equipped IBM X3450 and HP DL160 G5. According to Brian Huynh, product manager of Sun Systems Group, the aggressive pricing is an attempt to gain a bigger slice of the mainstream HPC market. “We’re trying to erase the perception that Sun is expensive,” he said.

Since the hardware is pretty similar on all these stripped-down 1U HPC servers, the real distinction comes with service. “Hardware differentiation is largely over, so you try to make yourself easy to work with,” Huynh explained. He said they’re going to try to beat the other guy with better business terms and better time to delivery. Sun is also one of a handful of vendors that can offer one stop shopping for HPC setups. So a customer can buy a single empty Sun server or a whole rack provisioned with a specified OS (Solaris, Red Hat, Novell, Windows) and a software stack pre-tuned for specific HPC workloads.

Although the X2250 product was publicly announced this week at IDF, Sun has been shipping them in volume since the end of July. Huynh said there were beta installations of the new server with EDA and MCAE customers. Also, Oregon State University and the San Diego Supercomputer Center are currently testing the X2250 for their own research applications.

Since the Sun Fire line is well-regarded, Sun probably left some money on the table by not coming out with this product sooner. Certainly the 2007 fiasco with the Barcelona quad-core chips caused Sun some hurt since it left the company with no quad-core HPC server, while its competitors had new Intel Penryn-based boxes shipping. Sun, like most big OEMs has a large product portfolio and limited engineering staff, so it took a while to get all its Intel ducks in a row.

Now that the company has filled in most of the Xeon holes in its lineup, it should have an easier time of it going forward. With the quad-core Nehalems on the horizon for Q4 2008, Sun is already gearing up for the next iteration of HPC offerings. Huynh, who is also the product manager for future Nehalem-based servers, hinted that the new Intel-based 1U boxes should be arriving by February or March of 2009. Since AMD’s new quad-core Shanghai chips are also scheduled to be released in Q4 2008, Sun may be in a position to refresh its x64 server offerings in unison early next year.

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