Sun continues to re-invent itself as an industry-standard player with the recent launch, for the first time, of a bunch of x86-based servers with Windows Server pre-installed.

But Sun's bid for the commodity server market appears to be straining the credibility of Sun's actual and potential customers, judging by responses to Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz' recent blog, entitled Value of Design.

The move to Windows, which will doubtless have generated some Schadenfreude in Redmond, is the result of the latest of a series of aggressive partnership moves that Sun has recently made. The Microsoft deal will also result in Sun building an interoperability centre on Microsoft's campus in Redmond, and an expansion of the two companies' Internet TV partnership, which involves Microsoft's MediaRoom IPTV and multimedia platform and Sun's server and storage systems.

An earlier deal with Microsoft stipulated that the two will work on developing Windows Server for Sun Fire hardware, and make Solaris fully manageable under Microsoft's recently introduced System Center Virtual Machine Manager.

Sun has also recently agreed with IBM that Big Blue would sell x86-based Solaris servers and blades. No biggie for IBM, which is quite accustomed to selling products that, on the face of it, appear to compete with each other but which allow IBM to continue to pitch itself as a complete solutions company - an advantage which overrides the competition issue.

There's a thread here, which speaks to Sun's need to develop a second string to its bow, one that takes advantage of the development effort behind Solaris, but which also allows the company to hedge its bets as its own UltraSparc chip-based machines continue to flat-line in the marketplace. But what Sun's struggled to do is to differentiate itself in an incredibly competitive market: anyone, it seems, can make an x86 server so you need something more than pixie-dust to achieve stand-out.

But pixie-dust appears to be the gist of Schwartz' blog of 25 September, where he shows off what he describes as "the company's first four-socket Caneland system, with 32 Dimms, 6 PCI-Express slots, built in RAID, up to 8 hot swap disks, redundant power & cooling, full remote systems management... all in 2U." The blog majors on the servers' design.

Confused users

The response to the blog from users and others was strong - even vitriolic in places. Some made the commodity point, while others reckoned that that Schwartz' emphasis on design was beside the point. "I think you've been reading too much Fast Company, Jonathan. If you don't already know, "Design" is the theme, this month. While usually Fast Company has a decent magazine, this month's blows. As a former designer, I can say this. Design doesn't get you too far, in this world. Design is like an afterthought, a non-essential," said one contributor. Others argued that design consisted of more than just the dimples on the front of the box.

Another pointed out that it's hard to differentiate between commodity servers: "This is not about the value of design, it’s about the value of a compelling value proposition. If the CIO thinks they’re buying a commodity, then they’ll drive to the lowest TCO. But, because they think it’s a commodity, they think everything else is the same. But, things are not the same. Systems are never a commodity, and if the decision maker thinks they are, then a compelling value proposition clearly doesn’t exist."

Sun's alleged lack of presence in the SMB market - important for commodity servers - was also raised: "There is just one problem that will keep impeding Sun's success in the market, and that is the immense problems you have in dealing with small customers. These are systems that could replace whiteboxes, but they never will if you have to literally spend weeks as a customer trying to buy machines from Sun. It literally took weeks for the .org that I'm involved in to buy a T2000 and a couple of x2200s from Sun....If you're trying to compete with whiteboxes and companies like Dell in the X86 market, then most of all you need to make it easy to buy from you."

However, this point was rebutted by another contributor - clearly a reseller himself - who argued that it was a question of finding the right reseller: "To those of you finding Sun x86 servers hard to buy from Sun. I would ask you to embrace Sun's partners, particularly the small ones rather than the global type....You can find superb response and reaction just like this from many of Sun's smaller partners. If your Sun partner doesn't ask this question, even in the x86 spaces, then hang up and try another, you will find a good one in the end."

So as well as raising interest in its new products - which from Schwartz' point of view would be no bad thing -he appears also to have generated much confusion in the minds of his users. And that's not such a good thing. And Schwartz admits that the move towards commodity products remains one of the company's biggest challenges.

It'll be interesting to see if, as Schwartz believes, design is the route out of this impasse.