Will Sun still shine?

Sun may not be in danger of drying up and blowing away anytime soon, but it does face a formidable coalition of competitors lining up behind the Intel 64-bit effort

As the major high-end computer-makers line up with plans either to migrate their own 64-bit systems to Intel Corp.'s new 64-bit chip family or to follow a two-pronged strategy featuring products with their own chips alongside those with Intel's, there remains one company notably absent from the list:

Sun Microsystems Inc.

Sun was a pioneer in the networked workstation market. Its products are respected and used throughout the federal government's technical agencies. In fact, NASA is said to be Sun's largest customer. Its customers have a dedication similar to that of Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh users.

Sun may not be in danger of drying up and blowing away anytime soon, but it does face a formidable coalition of competitors lining up behind the Intel 64-bit effort.

"When the government buys an Intel-based server, they can put that out to competitive bid and get responses from IBM [Corp.], Compaq [Computer Corp., [Hewlett-Packard Co.], Dell [Computer Corp.] and 14 other vendors," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for consulting firm Insight64. "It is all interchangeable, and it all runs the same software, so they can say, 'Who has the best price?' They can't do that when they buy Sun products."

Until now, two factors have helped Sun stay above the commodity-pricing fray. It is harder for buyers to compare products when they aren't based on the same technology. And even when a different product might be more cost-effective, migration headaches tend to keep users of a proprietary system like Sun's from wandering far, Brookwood said.

"With Itanium, all that changes," he said. "High-end computer systems are going to be a lot more competitive and a lot more interchangeable. I'm a big believer that customers would like to have a choice from whom they buy their hardware."

Brookwood expects that over time, just as Intel's and others' x86 products conquered the low end of the server market because of availability from a variety of vendors, Intels' 64-bit processors will work their way into the high end as well.

But Sun could hold its own despite this competition, said John Enck, senior research director for servers and directory strategies at Gartner Inc. "We don't like to underestimate Sun," he said. "We see only a small degradation of Sun's market share."

In fact, Enck believes that turmoil resulting from the planned Compaq/HP merger could actually help Sun gain market share.

Despite Itanium's evident advantage in floating-point calculations, according to independent benchmarks, Sun's computers have an advantage in "real world" computing, said Sue Kunz, director of marketing and business development for Sun's processor products group. Floating-point calculations are important in technical and engineering applications such as computer-aided design and manufacturing.

By "real world," she means not just looking at a single performance characteristic such as a processor benchmark, but the overall system performance and throughput, which takes into account many variables such as disk and memory access speeds.

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