November 7, 2003 1:55 PM PST

Sun plans server with AMD's Opteron

Sun Microsystems Chief Executive Scott McNealy is expected to announce his company's intention to sell servers using Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processor--a significant endorsement for the chip.

McNealy will make the announcement Nov. 17 at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, sources familiar with the plan said. The move would make Sun the second, after IBM, of the top four server makers to back the AMD processor.

The move isn't entirely unexpected. John Loiacono, head of Sun's operating systems products, said in April that Sun was likely to sell Opteron servers. And Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's top software executive, said in October that Sun will release a version of its Solaris operating system specifically for Opteron in 2004.

Sun is expected to sell dual-processor and four-processor Opteron servers available with Opteron-specific versions of Solaris or Linux, a source familiar with the company's plan said.

Sun spokeswoman Kasey Holman would not comment on specific plans, but said, "AMD is a great Sun partner, and we're always looking at ways to expand and improve our businesses." AMD spokesman Jeff Lowe declined to comment on Opteron server plans.

Opteron is a bold departure for AMD. The company has survived, if not thrived, by making processors that are compatible with Intel's "x86" Pentium, Xeon and Celeron chips. Opteron maintains compatibility with those 32-bit chips, but diverges with 64-bit extensions that will let the chip gracefully address much larger amounts of memory.

While the existing 32-bit software will run on Opteron, it must be retooled to take advantage of the 64-bit features. That retooled version of the software will no longer work on the 32-bit chips, meaning that a company selling Opteron-specific software will have to support that version separately from the Xeon version.

"Sun does run the risk of further increasing development and support costs," Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said. "It is just an incremental increase, but in a company that is cutting costs and does have a lot of different irons in the fire, even incremental additions are something to have some concern with."

There are potential advantages to be gained, however. Although Sun hasn't committed to creating a 64-bit Opteron version of its Java Enterprise System server software suite, Schwartz said the 64-bit version of Java shows performance improvements over the 32-bit x86 version.

Although Intel strongly backs its Itanium processor for 64-bit computing, it's possible the company has quietly taken a similar step as AMD. Although Intel won't comment on the possibility, David Yen, head of Sun's processor and network products group, believes Intel has added 64-bit extensions to its next-generation "Prescott" family of Pentium chips.

So far, the highest-profile endorsement of Opteron has come from IBM, which uses the chip in its dual-processor e325 server that Big Blue began discussing in April.

 

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