Bill Vass | Different tasks, different chips

Interview with Bill Vass of Sun Microsystems Federal

"Chips are like vehicles. Ford owns Jaguar, but they also make a Ford GT.... They don't compete with each other." Bill Vass

Rick Steele

A few months back, Sun Microsystems announced it would start selling servers with chips from Intel Corp. This was a quite a surprise to many, since Sun already sold boxes running processors from Advanced Micro Devices as well as its own Sparc chips. We caught up with Bill Vass, president of Sun's federal subsidiary, and asked him to outline how the company plans to market its wide array of offerings.

Vass is not your typical federal vendor. He has worked in a variety of government positions, including senior executive service in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he helped gird the Defense Department against the Y2K problem, and helped with the information technology portion of the Pentagon renovation.

GCN: Sun has been a bit of a dark horse when it comes to virtualization, but Solaris has some interesting technology with containers, which appear to applications as complete operating systems. Could you talk a bit about that?

Vass: Solaris can have about 8,000 virtual containers. I was over at Mitre, and they [are using containers], so they can have many, many things per machine. You can reboot a container in three seconds, and it only has less than 1 percent overhead.

From a software perspective, each container is a full OS instance. You get your own swap space, your own TCP/IP address, all those kinds of things. From each of these containers, you could run a Red Hat application or a Solaris application. You could take one little Dell box and put Solaris on it, and it would look like you have 8,000 servers.

GCN: How do all those the containers share the same network port?

Vass: It's true you can end up with a bottleneck there, if you have 8,000 containers with only one Ethernet port. We multithread the TCP/IP coming in and out. [With Sun's recently released Niagara chip], we have moved the TCP/IP onto the chip, so it has multiple 10-Gigabit Ethernet interfaces on the chip, rather than on the motherboard.

GCN: A few months back, Sun announced it would start shipping servers with the Intel chips. Could you talk a bit about the difference between Sparc, Intel and AMD servers?

Vass: We have a three-chip strategy. Intel and AMD is one family. The Sparc is one family. And we have 32-way chips [the Niagara UltraSparc T1], soon to be replaced by 64-way chips [the Niagara II UltraSPARC T2], that use the Sparc instruction set as well.

So why have three chips? Why not just have one chip? If you look at the different types of deployments out there, you really have three [distinct] loads.

A desktop is pretty much single-threaded. If your environment is single-threaded, I'd go with AMD or Intel. You won't have a 32-way chip on your desktop.
A lot of high-performance applications weren't written to be multithreaded as well. It's just one thread running as fast as it can, and when it's finished, the next thread runs, and then the next thread runs.

They aren't run in parallel. If you're running a simulation, you don't have 800 people logging on to watch it. If you start doing that, then you'd be multithreaded. Intel and AMD are the cheapest thread for a single-thread application.

When you need to share large amounts of memory, such as for big database applications where you have to join 300 tables together, you will need chips that will have to communicate very well with each other. And that is where the Sparc works, in enterprise resource planning environments and the like.

The 32-way chips are for your application servers, portal servers, identity servers ' any of those multithreaded loads. The Niagara chip is just incredible on that. I've seen it used to replace 16 servers with a single server. So now you will see a whole new consolidation effort, moving from many single-processor machines to fewer machines with single processors but lots of cores. It's a revolution, because these machines are very cheap.

Chips are like vehicles. Ford owns Jaguar, but they also make a Ford GT [sports car], and they also make passenger vans. If you look at these cars, you say they don't compete with each other. Ford isn't losing GT buyers to people buying vans. But all these vehicles run on the road and they can carry people. If I wanted to carry just one person around the track as fast as possible, I'd choose the GT. If I need to carry luggage and a few people, I can get a Jaguar. It will go almost as fast as the GT, but I can carry my family. If I run a mass-transit organization, I'd choose the van. I don't know many mass-transit organizations that choose GTs.

GCN: What with their low cost, wouldn't it still be more cost-effective to buy a fleet of Intel/AMD servers than a single Niagara-based box?

Vass: A single Niagara server will be cheaper than 16 Intel or AMD servers. Cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate. One of our customers replaced 83 Dell four-ways with four Niagara-based servers. So that is about $660,000 of Dell replaced with $40,000 of Sun. That's $200,000 of Red Hat licenses with $4,000 of Solaris licenses.

That's 36,000 watts of data center electricity usage with 1,200 watts. That's much cheaper.

Those were primarily Web servers. If this customer had a high-performance computing application, it would have been cheaper to stay with Dell.

GCN: How is it working with Scott McNealy, who became chairman of Sun Federal after stepping down in 2006 after 22 years as chief executive officer for Sun?

Vass: I love working with Scott. He's immensely supportive. I learn a lot from him. I'll be frank: When you're in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the DOD, everyone wants to be your friend.

So I met the Steve Ballmers, the Larry Ellisons and all the other leaders in the IT industry. Of all of them, Scott was the easiest one to work with. He had the smallest ego of the bunch I had to work with. He's very down-to-earth.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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