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Q&A: Sun's John Fowler touts the Intel deal

The two companies will work to optimise Solaris on Intel systems

Patrick Thibodeau, Computerworld

The agreement by Sun Microsystems and Intel to work together on product development, announced yesterday, will bring improvements in how Solaris operates on Intel's chips, according to John Fowler, Sun's executive vice president for systems. Those improvements will arrive in OpenSolaris, the open source version of the company's operating system. Under the new agreement, Sun will begin selling Intel-based systems while the two companies work to optimise Solaris on Intel's platforms.

Fowler talked about the agreement and what it means after the deal was unveiled.

Q: What kinds of improvements can users expect in how Solaris operates on Intel boxes? A: There are several things: taking advantage of advanced power management features, we will work directly with Intel to reduce power utilisation of servers at different workloads. The second thing we are going to work with them on is on I/O performance. Intel platforms have some I/O acceleration features, and together with Intel's help we can integrate changes in Solaris that greatly improve the efficiency and the performance of I/O on those platforms. The third area that we can work on is on reliability. Solaris has this feature called self-healing which is the ability to properly handle problems in the hardware and then continue to operate. Together with Intel we can actually integrate changes in Solaris to make it work particularly well on Intel platforms so we have a really high degrees of reliability.

Q: When will these improvement appear? Will they be available in the first server products due to be released this year? A: Where most of these changes will appear is actually in OpenSolaris first. And so they will start appearing during calendar 2007. It's basically going to be a continuous thread of innovation, not just some big bang.

Q: What other things will you be doing? Are you going to try to create scale-up platforms? A: What we're saying is that we are going to collaborate on greater than four-way systems -- and that can be a whole bunch of different activities -- making sure Solaris works well on them, as well as designing systems around them. Beyond that, I'm not going to go into any details of what exactly we are doing because I don't want to disclose any future product plans at this time.

Q: What will this mean for the Solaris update schedule? A: We just released Solaris update 3 and as we start to integrate changes that we work on together with Intel, they will just roll into the regular updates.

Sun has sold some server products already that were Intel based.... Yes, we used to have the LX50 server and the V60 and V65 servers, both of which were dual processor servers. We discontinued selling those in 2005.

Q: Why did you discontinue those Intel products? A: Before they (Intel) came out with Woodcrest, their prior products were not at all performance competitive with AMD. Because we were just starting out in the business, we decided to concentrate our engineering and marketing resources around AMD and that's been very successful for us. Now we're at a stage where adding Intel is a very logical thing to do -- especially since their technology has improved dramatically.

One of the things Intel wants is to expand the reach of x86 in enterprise markets that Sun has a heavy share of, and that includes financial services and telecommunications. What do you think of that? It sounds as if they are trying to take some of your UltraSparc market. They are always going to want to do that. But the reality of it is if Intel is going to take my UltraSparc market I'd rather it be in the product I sell as opposed to somebody else's. Sparc is doing extremely well on its own. It doesn't make a difference whether I sell Intel or not.

Q: Do you see, as a result of this agreement, development of Intel-based servers that can compete with your high-end UltraSparcs? A: There is nothing presently planned here that's at that same scale. Obviously, in the lower parts of the range they've always been competitive with UltraSparc and that doesn't seem to matter. Sparc still does quite well.

Q: Is there any reason why your UltraSparc customers should be nervous about where Sun's research and development efforts are going to be focused? A: No, they are seeing a constant raft of new products; We just taped-out (for final design) Rock, which is the new high-end processor, and we also said Niagara 2 is on track, which is the next generation Niagara processor for delivery in volume in the second half of this year. So the Sparc customers are seeing regular updates on a whole range of technologies so they know what's actually going on.