Intel chips are back in favor at Sun Microsystems once again, following a four-year hiatus in which Sun built its x86 server line exclusively using chips from Intel rival AMD.
At a press conference held in San Francisco this morning, Sun announced a line of Intel-based servers, beginning with a dual-Xeon model to be available in June. In return, Intel will elevate Sun's Solaris to the status of a "tier one" operating system.
Exactly what that means, of course, remains to be seen. At the press conference, Intel and Sun representatives said that Intel developers would work to accelerate Solaris on Intel hardware. But then, Solaris already runs on Intel hardware just fine, so it seems doubtful that much engineering effort will be required to squeeze a little extra performance out of it. More significant, probably, will be Intel's commitment to "really promote Solaris," cited by Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz.
According to Schwartz, the majority of customers who have downloaded Solaris for the x86 architecture are already installing it on Intel-based hardware. By offering a line of Intel servers of its own, Sun could potentially broaden the market for its x86-based hardware. At the same time, Intel's marketing efforts may indeed be the catalyst to "build a marketplace and ecosystem" for Solaris, as Schwartz says -- something Sun has so far struggled to do on its own.
Solaris, combined with Sun's Sparc-based servers, was once the premier operating platform for Unix-based applications. In recent years, however, Solaris's traditional customer base has increasingly turned to Linux running on industry-standard servers. To counter this trend, Sun has executed a number of competitive moves, including open-sourcing Solaris and slashing the cost of its OS support offerings, as part of an aggressive campaign aimed squarely at top Linux vendor Red Hat.
For the conspiracy-minded among you, Sun's partnership with Intel could be seen as further evidence that the company is moving away from its RISC-based past to concentrate on the x86 architecture. For its part, however, Sun denies any insinuation that it will abandon Sparc. Its representatives say the company is still on track to ship its forthcoming multi-core Sparc chip, codenamed "Rock," in mid-2008.