"I have no idea; it is an industry standard server after all." That is what we heard from two PR people, each representing a different large server manufacturer at CeBIT, when we asked them to elaborate on the differences between their servers and the competition. There is no better way to get sales people annoyed than asking them to differentiate their x86 servers on technical merits. A very popular philosophy among sales and even IT people is that the services and support make the difference; the hardware itself is merely a commodity - it does not matter which server you chose.

Seasoned system administrators know that the last sentence is an exaggeration. While there is little doubt that fast and capable support is important, it should not be the main selling point. For fragile devices such as notebooks that break down easily, yes, support can be critical. However, for sturdy servers, one of the selling points should be that you hardly ever need to call up the support lines. In addition, while the software services running on those servers are indeed the ultimate goal, making sure your software project starts with the best hardware foundation is critical.

The x86 server market really needs some fresh new ideas, and especially the four socket market could use a wind of change. Granted, IBM's System x3950 M2 and x3850 M2 are very innovative thanks to their ScaleXpander technology that allows you to combine several servers, but that is a solution for the ultra high-end of the x86 market. No, somebody needs to stir up this market - which is almost completely under the control of HP and IBM - with fresh ideas that are less costly. Number one and two in the server market are well entrenched: they control more than 70% of this market. Attacking those two leaders is therefore a daunting task. Dell believes in all-out assault on the HP/IBM double bastion with aggressive pricing. Sun on the other hand decided to undermine the ramparts with "think different" engineering.

The Sun Fire x4500 is one example, which can stack up to 24 TB of storage space in a 4U rack server. The future Sun Fire x4600 is the next (but again expensive) example, delivering 32 cores in a 4U rack space. However, the X4450 is in our humble opinion the best example: it has the promise of saving a lot of costs and is affordable for many enterprises. And the signs are good: the strategy of "Think Different" servers seems to have paid off so far: Sun has gone from the number 9 in the x86 server market in 2005 to the number 5 spot in 2007. In 2007, x86 was about 11% of Sun's business and 32% of Sun server shipments.

In this article we will look at one of Sun's most remarkable recent products, the Sun Fire X4450. The X4450 is a 2U server that promises to offer the same features and performance as the 4U servers from Dell, IBM, and HP. That sounds too good to be true, so we searched for the catch and compared with Intel's S7000FC4UR and Dell's PowerEdge R900. Especially the comparison with the PowerEdge R900 proved to be very interesting: both servers are perfect examples of the fact that Dell and Sun have a fundamentally different philosophy.

The "4 Socket Reference Design"

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