Sun fires back at Cisco with blade network switch

Sun's Virtual Network Express Module slides into a blade chassis and does the job of an aggregation switch, managing traffic between the blades and a central 10-Gigabit Ethernet switch

Sun Microsystems introduced its Nehalem-based server lineup on Tuesday, along with a new networking product that takes aim at an emerging rival in the server market, Cisco Systems.

The products are being launched at a time when Sun is fighting for its survival. The company has reportedly been in talks to be acquired by IBM, though neither company has confirmed any discussions, and the talks appear to have stalled for the time being.

[ Sun's next step is unclear after the breakdown of talks with IBM. | For the full rundown on the failed IBM-Sun talks, see InfoWorld's special report. ]

Cisco rattled the server market last month by announcing plans to offer a blade server as part of its Unified Computing System. Sun's answer is to shoot back with a new component for its blade servers that it says can do away with the need for one of Cisco's switches.

The long-term goal of both vendors is to simplify datacenters by combining storage, networking, and computing capabilities into a single platform.

Sun's new offering is the Virtual Network Express Module, or NEM, a piece of hardware that slides into a blade chassis and does the job of an aggregation switch, managing traffic between the blades and a central 10-Gigabit Ethernet switch. That work is often done today by a managed switch from a third party such as Cisco.

"Instead of having a managed switch from a third-party vendor, we developed a piece of silicon that makes all the blades think they are talking to their own dedicated interconnect, so you're eliminating Gigabit-to-10 Gigabit Ethernet," said John Fowler, executive vice president of Sun's systems business.

One benefit, he said, is to eliminate the tangle of cables that would normally connect the blades to the aggregation switch. In Sun's case they are connected to its NEM via a PCI Express backplane in the blade chassis.

Other vendors have integrated an aggregation switch with their servers, but that piece usually comes from a third-party vendor and has to be managed separately. It also typically carries a higher price than Sun's product, according to Fowler. The NEM is priced at $4,999 and can be used with Sun's existing blade servers, as well as new ones being released Tuesday.

The technology is "very impressive," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight64. It may provide less fine-grained management capabilities than a third-party switch, such as the ability to prioritize traffic from different applications, but many customers don't need that, he said.

One challenge for Sun is to win mindshare in the blade market, where Hewlett-Packard and IBM dominate, said Jean Bozman, a research vice president at IDC. She too credited Sun for its innovation, but said it must keep sight of the big picture and not look at the market in "piece parts."

The NEM was introduced at a press event at Sun's office in Menlo Park, Calif., where it also launched six servers and a workstation based on Intel's new Nehalem microarchitecture.

They include the first two servers that incorporate a new flash storage module that Sun has been designing into its motherboards. It plugs in much like a standard DIMM module.

The goal is to supplement hard disks and solid-state drives by placing flash memory close to the microprocessor, to reduce latency and boost I/O speed. The modules have 24GB of flash and each motherboard can currently accommodate two.

The modules consume a little over 1.5 watts of power when operational, compared to 15 watts for a disk drive, according to Fowler, and they can perform several thousand I/O operations per second, compared to a few hundred for a hard disk, he said.

The amount of flash included is "relatively small" today, Fowler acknowleged, but Sun will increase it with future systems and offer the modules with more server models, including Sparc- and AMD-based systems.

"Functionally I think of this as a modern disk drive," he said.

The systems that include the flash modules are the Sun Fire X2270, a 1-U rack-mount server for the enterprise that starts at $1,488; and the Sun Blade X6275, a high-performance-computing blade that starts at $8,779.

Also launched Tuesday was the Sun Blade 6048, which uses on-board QDR (quad data rate) InfiniBand for all the interconnects. That system, also for the HPC market, starts at $19,995.

"This is aimed at people doing fairly intensive technical computing tasks, as opposed to the enterprise, but it represents the state of the art" and can be used in "an extremely capable cluster-level system," Fowler said.

The other new systems are the Sun Fire X4170, X4270, and X4275 rack-mount servers, and the Sun Blade X6270.

Fowler was reluctant to answer questions about the reported merger talks with IBM. In an interview earlier, he acknowleged the distraction but said customers are focussed on buying products that solve their problems.

"Whenever you have -- obviously -- a rumor, customers are going to call you and ask you questions, but for all our customers we go back and emphasize what we are building," Fowler said.

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