On the flip side

The computing world at large appears to be shifting inexorably to a state where vendors become nothing more than resellers of...

The computing world at large appears to be shifting inexorably to a state where vendors become nothing more than resellers of Intel and Microsoft technology, differentiated only by the services, skills and software they wrap around the Wintel bundle. The PC arena is already at this stage - with the sole exception of Apple - and the server world is the next big target for the Wintel alliance.

And things are already shifting. In addition to long-standing Wintel allies such as Compaq and Dell, traditional Unix and Risc-based vendors, such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, are taking Microsoft and Intel servers on board and integrating them into their product lines. In HP's case, it is also a co-developer of the Intel 64-bit Itanium processor.

The notable exception in the server arena is Sun Microsystems, which has concentrated exclusively on its Sparc architecture and Solaris operating system and refused to become a Wintel accredited reseller. Naturally, Sun's stance has earned it scorn and applause within the industry, but it seems to be paying off - at least if you believe John Davis, senior director of Sun's mid-range server business.

The Sun strategy of offering a uniform processor and OS platform across its product range contrasts with IBM, a big player in the server space, which is not exclusively a Wintel partner but has adopted more of a mix and match approach, encompassing Intel and Risc and a number of operating systems such as Windows, Unix, OS390 and OS400.

While IBM views this as a strength by allowing customers to pick the best technology for a particular task, Sun argues it is better to have a single architecture. In this respect, Sun can be viewed as the other side of the Microsoft and Intel coin. Microsoft would probably say customers could have any operating system they liked, so long as it was Windows, and its strategy has been to move Windows up the scale to remove the requirement from customers to choose any other operating system.

The attack on Wintel
With his main focus on the release of the Sun Fire V880 entry-level workgroup and departmental server (which can hold between two and eight UltraSparc III processors), Davis is keen to address the perception that Wintel owns the low-end server space. "We saw a significant opportunity in the workgroup server market fours years ago when we introduced the Enterprise 450. We've now got 21 per cent market share worldwide - four years ago, it was tiny. In the most recent quarter, we were the fastest growing company in the entry-level server space." And he's confident Sun can make gains. With the V880, Sun sees the eight-way Intel space "as a market where we can go in and capture market share".

Davis argues the Intel eight-way market is attractive because Sun has an advantage with its scalable processor and operating system architectures, claiming there has not been a great deal of adoption of the Intel machines because customers "can't scale the architecture and the operating system. It gives us a great advantage against the Wintel environment".

Another area for Sun to exploit is Intel's forthcoming transition to the Itanium platform. When looking at four and eight-way servers, Davis asks, why should customers invest in Intel when they will have to upgrade to Itanium in a relatively short space of time, leaving them with the inconvenience of swapping boxes and recompiling applications?

Moving down the platforms
Among other claims against rival Intel-based machines, Davis says the Sun Fire V880 is cheaper than PC server pricing by 30 per cent or more, if you include the cost of the Microsoft technology. One area where Sun hopes to cash in on pricing and cost of ownership savings is server consolidation.

Davis believes there is a huge opportunity for customers seeking to consolidate their smaller Wintel servers. "In the Wintel environment, you have to continually add machines. There's a high cost of acquisition and system management. You can reduce the acquisition and ongoing management costs and the remote management capability is a key feature [of the V880] when you look at the total cost of ownership."

He argues the competitive pricing is another advantage provided by the scalability of the Sun architecture. "We can heavily exploit our investment in the mid-range and high-range - we're not developing from scratch [like Intel]. We're taking proven technologies and bringing them to the entry-level market."

IBM, for one, does something very similar with the migration of mainframe and AS/400 technology downwards, but Davis claims it is at a disadvantage because it is having to deal with multiple architectures. "It has proven technologies, but is trying to move them to a totally different architecture [Intel]. So it has to reinvent them and it doesn't control the architecture - Intel does. We can do it much quicker and focus on cost reduction rather than reinvention."

Davis suggests that in having to reinvent technology across a number of different architectures, especially Intel, vendors such as IBM can find themselves at a disadvantage to Sun: "When you reinvent a proven technology on a different architecture, it's not proven anymore."

By contrast, Sun has "developed the single architecture that can do everything" and the Sun Fire machines "are meeting expectations at all levels. We can provide and meet all market requirements on a single architecture".

A fight for survival
Meanwhile, HP's proposed takeover of Compaq is also giving Sun an opportunity because it has brought about added confusion among customers over which products, architectures and operating systems will survive if the deal between the two vendors goes ahead. Davis quotes market research figures which claim HP lost ten points in worldwide market share in the entry-level server space in the last quarter.

He describes the V880 as "a great demonstration of how competitive Sun can be in the entry-level server market space. It's one of many products and our customers have responded in terms of market share gains. We see future opportunities to take market share".

And to those who remain sceptical about Sun's future as a single architecture company, he can't resist pointing out that before it entered the workgroup server market four years ago, "analysts told us it was totally Wintel and we shouldn't even try".

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