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ADT at Comdex: McNealy touts AMD-Sun pact

Sun Microsystems' CEO Scott McNealy broke some big news in his Comdex keynote audience yesterday -- his firm has finally looked outside for processors to run its biggest machines. McNealy disclosed that Sun has teamed up with Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) to develop 64-bit servers based on AMD's Opteron processors.

The new servers will run both the Sun Solaris OS and Linux, McNealy said, giving customers a choice among three operating systems for the Opteron processor: Windows, Linux, and Solaris. McNealy, of course, touted the latter's advantages.

''Solaris is 64-bit ready,'' McNealy said. ''Our engineers are excited about the performance, multipath threading and scalability. Here's a processor architecture that really takes advantage of what Solaris has to offer.''

The agreement was not entirely unexpected. Some observers predicted Sun would turn to an outside chipmaker following the departure of Sun co-founder and longtime chief scientist Bill Joy (see http://www.adtmag.com/article.asp?id=8277), who played a key role in the firm's shift from Motorola's 68000 chip family to the Sun-built Sparc microprocessor.

McNealy said the agreement calls for Sun to sell new AMD Opteron-based Sun Fire systems, as well as versions of the Solaris OS and the Java platform for the AMD chipset. The alliance also includes a long-term deal to jointly create hardware and software products. Sun plans to work with AMD to produce a range of Opteron systems, beginning with two- and four-way servers that will begin shipping in 2004. McNealy gave his audience a peek at two new servers on stage at the end of his presentation.

The AMD news was big -- an alliance of these two Silicon Valley heavyweights could cut into the enterprise server and processor markets currently dominated by IBM and Intel -- but it was no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The deal had been in the works for about a year, according to Sun, and word has been leaking out of both companies about an impending partnership in recent weeks.

Moreover, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based computer systems company has been struggling to hang onto a share of the shriveling worldwide server market. (Sun has experienced 10 consecutive quarters of declining revenue.) With competition from Hewlett-Packard, Dell and IBM, Sun was forced to rethink its longtime strategy of offering expensive, high-end servers built on its own Sparc processors running its Solaris OS.

The AMD pact allows Sun to hawk enterprise-grade, 64-bit computing at prices that can compete with low-cost, Intel-based systems that have been invading the market for Sparc-servers running Solaris.

The alliance provides AMD with a much-needed dose of enterprise systems expertise, according to the company's chief executive, Hector Ruiz, who joined McNealy on stage in Las Vegas. Ruiz said the Sun-AMD alliance was a kind of validation of his company's strategy of trying to overtake Intel with 64-bit computing. The partnership, he said, would smooth customer transition from 32-bit computing to 64-bit computing, while maintaining backward compatibility with legacy 32-bit applications, which, he said, is not possible when moving to Intel's Itanium platform.

AMD launched the Opteron line in April of this year. Sun is the second major vendor to commit to producing systems based on it; IBM was the first.

Sun currently uses Intel's Xeon microprocessors in its low-end server systems.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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