Sun released its Opteron servers today, and others based on the latest UltraSPARC processor, in a bid to reverse its recent slide with new products and technologies.

The company is the second major server vendor after IBM to release systems based on AMD's 64-bit processor with the introduction of the Sun Fire V20z. It will be available in one-processor and two-processor Opteron configurations in April, said Neil Knox, Sun's VP for volume systems.

Sun's new Solaris servers are based on the UltraSparc IV, the company's first multicore processor and its first major processor launch since the UltraSPARC III in 2000. Five new Sun Fire systems will sell alongside older UltraSparc III-based systems as they are rolled out over the next few months.

The new servers represent both a new direction for Sun as well as an extension of the technology that made the company one of the world's leading server vendors. Sun was alone among the major server vendors in the late 1990s by refusing to release a server based on Intel's x86 instruction set, concentrating instead on powerful but expensive 64-bit servers Solaris.

However, as technology budgets shrank in the past few years, customers snapped up low-cost Intel servers from Dell, HP, and IBM. The Unix server market stagnated while Windows and Linux-based servers flew off shelves, leaving Sun with shrinking revenues and quarterly losses.

But Sun has recently has stepped up its pursuit of the x86 market with new rack and blade systems. At Comdex in November, it announced it would support AMD's Opteron processor and produce the largest line of servers running the technology.

IBM also sells Opteron servers, but has focused mostly on the high-performance computing market with its eServer 325. Sun's participation gives AMD a change to crack the corporate data centre, a market in which it has little experience, said Jamie Gruener, senior analyst at The Yankee Group.

Opteron allows customers to run 32-bit and 64-bit applications on their servers, provided they have a 64-bit operating system. Sun ported Solaris to Opteron, and will also make Red Hat and Novell SuSE's 64-bit versions of Linux available on the server.

Most customers will probably choose to run Linux on the Opteron server, Gruener said, as Linux is simpler and cheaper to maintain than Solaris. However, it may have to consider adopting Windows if it is to effectively tackle the whole market, he argued. Sun said in January that it would certify its x86 products for Windows, but it has yet to decide whether to include Microsoft's OS on the Opteron servers.

Research VP of IDC's worldwide server group, Jean Bozman is not convinced Sun will bother with Windows however. The Linux server market is growing faster than either the Unix or Windows markets and Sun will be content with tapping into that strong growth for now, she said.

A base configuration of the Sun Fire V20z costs £1,494 with a single Opteron 242 processor, 1GB of PC2700 (333MHz) DDR (double data rate) SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM), a 36GB hard drive, a built-in Ultra320 SCSI (small computer systems interface) controller, dual Gigabit Ethernet slots, and two PCI-X (peripheral component interconnect - extended) slots. The server ships without an operating system, but both Linux and Solaris licenses are available for under £160 from Sun.

Sun also announced the B200x blade server today. It uses Intel's Xeon processor in a 3U blade form factor, and prices start at £2,026.

While the Opteron products are designed for application servers and Web servers, the new UltraSparc IV models are expected to do more heavy lifting, such as database and transaction processing work.

The new chip is essentially two UltraSparc III processors integrated onto a single die, explained VP of enterprise sales at Sun, Clark Masters. This almost doubles the performance of the new servers as compared to UltraSparc III servers when running applications like SAP and Oracle databases. The technology is similar to that employed by HP's PA-8800 RISC CPUs, IBM's Power4, and Intel's next generation Itanium 2 (codenamed Montecito).

UltraSparc IV is also designed to work more efficiently with multiple software threads used by the Solaris operating system, with customers able to plug the new processors directly into their servers without having to reboot the server.

The five new servers run the gamut from four-way servers to a system with 72 UltraSparc IV processors, running at 1.05GHz and 1.2GHz. They cost between £52,916 and £441,150, and will be rolled out over the next few months. According to Sun, a more likely configuration would be 48 processors running at 1.05GHz with 192GB of memory and would cost about £1.2m.

Two other Sun Fire servers will be upgraded with faster UltraSparc III processors as of Tuesday. The V210 and V240 now come with the 1.28GHz UltraSparc III processor and will cost less than the older versions with the 1GHz processor.

Tuesday's announcement is one of the largest from Sun in recent years and the timing is not coincidental. "We all know that Sun has had tough times in recent quarters," Bozman said. "We've arrived a point where the economy is turning up, and Sun are appealing to their install base. IT managers are thinking about augmenting their systems and Sun now supports three major hardware platforms."