Sun Microsystems is launching a new blade server system that propels it into direct competition with blade market leaders IBM and HP.

This is a move into what Sun calls the front of the data centre - that is, more customer-facing systems - as opposed to back-end systems running enterprise databases, which Sun's UK product manager Gary Owen described as the company's heartland.

The Sun Blade 6000 system consists of a new chassis and a set of blades that will include CPUs from AMD, Intel and Sun. According to Owen, the 6000's differentiators are five-fold:

1. The chassis will work with different processor architectures simultaneously. "It's the only blade product that can genuinely have three architectures of blade - AMD Opterons, Intel Xeons, and the UltraSparc T1," said Owen. "With ours you can mix and match but with others you can only put one architecture at a time. Our customers see the benefits as it's a data centre in a chassis."

2. The chassis uses what Owen described as industry-standard I/O modules. In other words, plug-in I/O modules work using PCIE, which is controlled by the PCI SIG - an industry standards body. "The only way to replace I/O modules in an HP or IBM blade system is to bring down the blade and replace the module, while ours are hot-pluggable in the chassis," said Owen.

"Our pre-release customers say this is why they'd buy it. We believe other vendors will start to produce these in volumes which will result in lower prices."

3. Sun has placed a management module on the blade which allows users to manage the blades as if they were individual systems. According to Owen, the advantage of this is that IT managers can use the same management framework that they use for other systems, such as rack servers.

"One lesson of the blade industry is that you need a separate management methodology, especially since you always have rack mounted servers too. With the 6000, you can still manage blades via the chassis but customers have said they want to manage the blade as if it were an individual computer." As an example of the chip's capabilities, Owen said it allows you to do lights-out management.

4. Owen claimed no other blade vendor offered as wide a range of CPUs - although he admitted that both IBM and HP offer blades with processor architectures other than x86. All Sun's blades are two-socket devices. The Intel Xeon product will be quad-core from launch, while AMD's Opteron-based blade will initially be dual-core but will go quad-core ready when Barcelona, the processor company's quad-core chip, comes out towards the end of this summer.

The single-socket, Sun UltraSparc T1 blade uses an eight-core CPU, with a twin-socket blade due out when Sun's UltraSparc T2 arrives. Owen said that Sun was also planning a four-socket AMD blade, though he couldn't provide a timescale for this.

All blades contain eight DIMM slots and capacity for four hotplug SAS disks, which means they're externally accessible. Owen said this number of drives, though unusual on a blade, was required for applications such as high-performance computing; they can be configured as a RAID. Disks also use modular I/O controller so users can switch to other controller technologies if required. Owen reckoned the blades offer twice the I/O bandwidth than the best from HP.

5. Finally, Owen said that the chassis is highly modular with most parts upgradeable, and that it's designed for the demands of four-way blades and includes, for example, redundant 6kW PSUs.

The 6000's I/O options start with a £300 10-port Network Express 1Gbit Ethernet switch module for £300. You can extend with modules offering 10Gbit Ethernet, and Infiniband, for example. Ports can be virtualised between blades, allowing high bandwidth applications to grab more I/O capacity.

Alongside the hardware itself is a subscription purchase offer which allows customers to buy the product over 2.5 years, a deal that includes up to two technology upgrades, such as CPU speed bump.

While no prices are yet available for the subscription deal, Owen said that the general purchase model is akin to those of its rivals: the proprietary chassis is relatively cheap - "it's just a series of hot-pluggable buses, including redundant PSUs and cooling" - but the plug-ins are where serious costs arise.

A chassis costs £3,000 and blade prices start at £2,400 for an AMD two-way dual core CPU with 4GB RAM. A Xeon quad core single CPU blade with 2GB RAM costs £2,200; a six-core UltraSparc blade with 4GB RAM costs £3,590.

Sun is also offering what Owen called a unique service and support package around the 6000. He said that the competition's services are on a per-blade basis. "This is a management headache for customers and for us," said Owen, "so we offer one contract per blade and have priced it on a break-even point at six blades. Most people more than half-fill them so we think it's a great deal."

Owen said that Sun had no current plans to open the design of the chassis to allow third parties to develop hardware and software for the platform, as do HP and IBM. However, he said that "it wasn't a key part of the announcement but it seems likely since we open source everything else."

Finally, Owen mentioned a future development Sun plans to offer: a rack that accepts blades directly. "Our engineers realised that instead of packing 10 blades across a 19-inch rack, you could fit 12 if you took away the chassis."

Codenamed the C48, it's a 42U blade chassis that's a result of Sun's acquisition of Kealia in 2004, and is aimed at applications requiring high densities, such as HPC, multimedia streaming, and telcos. The new rack means you can fit 48 blades per rack as opposed to 40 using a standard chassis, said Owen. "It also means you save 480lb (218Kg) in weight on a full rack and you save even more cables and cable management," he said.

"It's a tough part of the market to enter," said Owen, "but we blow IBM and HP out of the water."