Server maker Sun Microsystems still has a very healthy and growing business selling specialised AdvancedTCA form factor blade servers to telecommunications companies, network equipment providers, and other service providers. These customers have to balance wanting to be on the cutting edge of networking technology against their need to deploy large numbers of ruggedised, often DC-powered, servers for very long duty cycles. Which is why Sun's Netra servers are still popular among service providers and are providing Sun both sales and profits despite the intense competition from other sellers of ACTA and non-ACTA boxes.
The ACTA standard is one that the telecom and service provider industry established before commercial blade servers really took off, and had the industry shifted to telecom-style blades, which allow mixing and matching of components from different server and peripheral providers within the ACTA chassis, the ecosystem for commercial blade servers would be richer today and not dominated by two vendors - IBM and Hewlett-Packard - with two wannabees - Sun and Dell - none of whom make machinery that is compatible with each other. But because commercial customers do not insist on standard shapes and interfaces for blade servers, they are subject to vendor lock-in. Not so for those companies that use ACTA blades.
There is some pressure, but there are so few providers and a relatively small base of customers, which tends to make prices higher than they might otherwise be.
Sun this week announced a new ACTA blade server chassis, the Netra CT 900, that has a 10 Gigibit Ethernet backplane for the blades and similarly fast links to networks. With the faster processors Sun is deploying in new Sparc T2 and Opteron blades and the integrated packet pre-processing, cryptography, and 10GE ports in the T2 chips, telcos, service providers, and NEPs can now consolidate some of the custom built networking gear (often coded in assembly language) back into the server blades and use plain old C and C++ to access integrated features on the chip. "This is a really big deal," explains Mark Butler, director of the Netra systems product line at Sun's Systems Group. So is standardising on Sun's Solaris operating system, LDom logical domain partitions on the T2s, and using tools created specifically for communications customers, which Sun is packaging up as the Unified Network Platform.
The Netra CT 900 chassis is a 12U rack-mounted chassis that sports up to 14 vertical server blades with both front and read access to the blades. The box is NEBS 3 certified and has two Gigabit Ethernet blade switches with four channels per blade. It comes with three hot swap fans and redundant power, all of which is crammed into a chassis that is only 19 inches deep. The chassis uses a 10 Gigabit Ethernet switch card, which provides over 4,5 terabits/sec of system bandwidth between the blades.
Two different blades are designed to take advantage of the 10 Gigabit Ethernet backplane. The first is the Netra CP3260 blade, which is based on the eight-core, 64-thread Sparc T2 processor, code-named 'Niagara-2' and roughly doubling the performance of the T1 processor that is also available in Netra blades. The CP3260 ACTA blade uses 1,2 GHz T2 chips with either six or eight cores activated and offers from 8 GB to 32 GB of FD-DIMM main memory.
The blade comes with redundant 64 MB flash memories and has optional 8 GB or 16 GB CompactFlash memory for those who want to stay away from disks. The base configuration of this blade will be around $11 500, says Butler. The other blade, the CP3220, is based on a very similar design, but it swaps out the single T2 chip for a single dual-core 2.4 GHz Rev F 'Santa Rosa' Opteron 1000 series processor. When Advanced Micro Devices gets the 'Budapest' single-socket variants of its quad-core 'Barcelona' processors to market in the first quarter of 2008, these quad-core chips will also be available in the CP3220 blade. Butler says that the CP3220 will cost around $6500 in an entry configuration.
This might sound a bit pricey compared to commercial blades that do not adhere to the ACTA standard, but when you amortise it over a decade, it is not so bad. And considering the thermal advantages of these new chips, the increased performance compared to prior generations of UltraSparc processors, and the integrated functionality in the T2 chips, Sun thinks it is offering service providers a pretty good deal.
Sun's customers obviously agree. In Sun's fiscal 2007 year, which ended in June, Netra server sales rose by 38%, far outpacing Sun's overall server revenue growth, which has been a tad anemic. Butler says that unit volumes have been rising for a few years, but more recently, revenues growth was rising faster than shipment growth.
But in the past few quarters, shipments have picked up again.
Butler says that the Netra line has had six consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue growth, in fact. And the integration of new functionality back into the blades is going to help Sun drive more sales. As an example, if a NEP wants to turn a blade into a security gateway, they might spend $18 000 to do that on a Netra CP3260 blade; but buying an external security gateway that can handle the kinds of line speeds at telco and service provider firms can cost $100 000 or more. This is a lot of savings, even if a Netra CT 900 chassis with a single blade might run $40 000.
The ante is large, but so are the savings as functions are pulled out of the network and back into the blade servers.