The Glamor in Mass Transit (?)

Given a choice, few consumers would pick a double decker bus over an Italian sports car.

But if you were in the business of moving people at maximum efficiency, buses are hard to beat. Their mileage per passenger mile is >20x your average sports car. One way they achieve this, in the language of IT, is that buses parallelize transportation. They optimize for multi passenger performance, versus single passenger performance (largely the opposite of what most consumers do, parents in minivans notwithstanding).

That same focus on industrial efficiency (and divergence from consumer preference) has been washing over the datacenter for a few years. While consumers turn to Dolce and Gabbana phones, datacenters are increasingly pining for high performance buses – infrastructure optimized for utilization, efficiency, and overall performance, not just simple component speed.

That’s a focus we initiated years ago – when we dove into chip multi-threading, shipping the industry’s first octal (8) core microprocessor – each core with 4 threads of execution, making for a sub-$4,000 server capable of doing 32 threads of work simultaneously (with great mileage). (Click here to try one free.) We deliberately prioritized efficiency over single thread performance – and it was a good bet. Intel, AMD, IBM and Sun are now all investing heavily in multi-core platforms – with Sun farthest ahead, having taped out the world’s only mainstream hexa-deca (16) core microprocessor. (Which I embarassingly referred to as a “hexacore” chip on our last earning’s call… I’ve since been practicing, hexadecacore. Say it with me, hexa-deca-core.)

Hardware without software isn’t worth much, and happily, Solaris knows how to “scale,” or take advantage of all those separate lanes – so applications can take immediate advantage of the innovation without any extra work. Customers can run one application on each thread on the chip, or one app over many threads, or even assign different OS’s to each core on the chip – with every permutation in between (now fashionably referred to as “server virtualization“). The result? Customers buy fewer, bigger boxes, consume less space and power, and generally get way better mileage. Traditionally, if you wanted to guarantee application performance, you gave an application its own server. Server virtualization products like VMWare and Solaris 10 let you condense lots of apps onto a single box, giving each the illusion it has its own box – while a policy engine automates how precious cpu and memory are allocated to guarantee the same performance. Again, radically reducing boxes, power, space, heat – and spend.

We’re bringing that same virtualization to the storage world – having released a file system, ZFS, that knows how to “scale,” eliminating volume management and abstracting away the complexities of dealing with herds of disk drives. Even when those drives fail (after all, there are only two types of disk drives: those that have failed, and those that are about to do so). With some of our customers deploying thousands and even tens of thousands of disk drives, ZFS allows for big pools to be simply aggregated together, delivering reliable service from cheap parts – with incredible simplicity and data integrity.

And that leaves only one segment of the datacenter untouched by a focus on parallelism and virtualization. And for the company that’s always said, “the network is the computer,” it’s been an obvious gap. What about the network itself?

As you may know, most networking devices are single threaded – they parallelize work via physical ports. You want more network? Buy more ports. Yielding all kinds of cabling messes, waste, management headaches and even weight problems (copper weighs a lot, and raised floor datacenters are now hitting their weight limits – no, I’m not joking). The networking world has, for the most part, failed to keep pace with the brutal efficiency parallelization of the computing world.

In a perfect world, you’d want computers, not people, to dynamically allocate scarce networking resources, like we now see with server resources – assigning, say, lots of bandwidth and guaranteed service levels to high value customers, and less of both to low value (or ‘best effort’) services. You’d want a simple policy engine, not a human being, making such decisions – responding to demand or business rules without physical intervention (eliminating cable swaps and port proliferation, for example). That is, you’d want to virtualize the network, too.

That’s why we just introduced Project Neptune – a silicon project that marries the parallelism of the microprocessor (for Intel, AMD and SPARC systems), with the parallelism of the underlying operating system (Solaris, Linux or Windows), with parallelism in the network itself. Which in
concert with some software magic (which goes by the name of the Crossbow project) allows enterprises to collapse cabling, ports, cards and spending – by bringing parallelism to basic network infrastructure (for geeks, you can take multiple TCP streams and allocate them to different processor threads, spreading out load and freeing up CPU’s/ports). Ports become a physical convenience, just like a server – what’s happening inside depends upon rules or policies set by the user/administrator to automate such decisions. Like I said, the network is the computer, and the computer’s virtualized, so why not the network?

Now who would find Project Neptune appealing? Anyone’s whose spending, for either software licenses, administrative effort, NIC cards, cabling or hosting charges, is related to the number of ports in their datacenter. After all, the future of network computing looks a lot more like a greyhound bus station than a Formula 1 race – as unglamorous as that might be, buses are a lot more efficient, and a lot better for the planet. Fewer, more powerful ports, like fewer, more powerful servers, is a good thing (for us, anyways :).

If you’d like to try a Neptune card for free, just click here. And before you ask, yes, that is a Project Blackbox mocked up like a bus, and no, it’s not a new form factor.

For far more technical details and insights (on Project Neptune and Crossbow), here are some great links and blogs:

Sunay’s summary of Project Crossbow in Solaris 10.
Another great blog entry, this one from Ariel Hendel.
And here’s another interesting read.


And best of all, here’s a truly great podcast, brought to you by some of the engineers responsible for the innovations in Solaris and Neptune.

And lastly…

Today marks Sun’s 25th birthday – there will be lots of folks focused on the proper celebrations (throughout the year – stay tuned). Having been at Sun for only 10 years, I’m very much in awe of our history, and still feel like a newbie (the podcast, above, features four individuals who have each, even the youngest, been at Sun for longer than I).

To me, the best way of celebrating Sun’s history – is to celebrate the future we’re helping to create. Neptune’s a timely example. The network is the computer… indeed.

Happy Birthday, everyone!


Filed under General

29 responses to “The Glamor in Mass Transit (?)

  1. Per Sandstrom

    I find it quite incredible that you date a blog entry February 24, 2007, without even mentioning that this very day is the 25 year anniversary of Sun Microsystems, Inc. Neither is there any hint of the importance of the day on the corporate website. I wonder why this is so?
    Best wishes from Stockholm,

  2. I saw your interview with Scoble yesterday and decided to check out the SE program. I spent the last night researching on Solaris vs Linux. Since for last 4 years I have been working on Linux and moving to Solaris seems like a lot of work.
    But its really a blow to confidence when I see SUN not being able to run one of their own key infrastructure.
    Sun multimedia center has been down for the last 12 hours.
    Who is to blame SUN Hardware ? Solaris ? People ?

  3. Mark Edwards

    Love your analogy on chip multi-threading! Sun continues to lead the world in providing economic an environmentally conscience solutions. Keep up the great work! People should start investing in SUNW to reward this leadership.

  4. Vikas, you probably want to read Linux to Solaris Administrators Guide. It’s an excellent explanation of the differences between Linux and Solaris, but it’s quite hard to find on the web site. I’m sure way more Linux admins and developers would seriously consider using Solaris after reading this. Maybe Sun could make it easier find?

  5. Tony Bivona

    Hi Jonathan,
    Happy Birthday so to speak…A company that has made it 25 years in your business is no easy feat…I have a birthday present that I would like to share with all of your readers…I wanted to let everybody know that you have finally turned around one of your biggest critics…Take one guess as to who that may be…Well if you guessed Cramer…You guessed right…Check this blurbage out:
    Cramer’s ‘Mad Money’ Recap: Two Specs to Examine
    Cramer’s second speculative pick, Sun Microsystems (SUNW – Cramer’s Take – Stockpickr – Rating), is a company he has “hated for a very long time.”
    However, because new management is “shaking things up” at Sun Micro, Cramer believes the stock is an “under-$10 turnaround.”
    At the same time, he warned viewers against acting too fast and paying too much for the stock. Be careful and look for a good entry point, Cramer said, adding that he sees two points of upside for this stock only if people play by his rules and wait until at least Monday afternoon to buy it.
    Although Sun Micro has been a “loser,” the turnaround here is real at last, he said. First, the company is cutting costs, which means higher margins, and its product sales are growing, Cramer said.
    Plus, it “has a lot of upgrade potential,” with a server business that’s “en fuego” and a “strong” software business, he said, advising people to buy it patiently and carefully with limit orders.
    Take care and keep on kicking butt and taking names…A long time investor of SUNW…

  6. Lee Hepler

    Great product! Does this mean that Sun will be able to produce a server that will drastically reduce the cost of 10Gb routers and switches? Kind of like what thumper did for storage except for networking. There is another way to greatly increase network throughput. You would need to apply parallelism to each UDP or TCP connection. We have been getting a 10X to 20X increase in throughput for several years now by using an application called bbftp to transfer files between the US and overseas locations. To bad this type of parallelism isn’t built into crossbow. It is very effective in reducing the effects of network latency in a similar way to how multithreading the processor reduces stalled processor cycles. I did try to tell the crossbow guys about it but they just didn’t get it and unfortunately Dr. Pop (Greg Papadopoulos) is a black hole when you send him suggestions. I wish Sun had a suggestion box so I could at least see if anyone ever even reads suggestions and maybe even track them. Please make the Sun Download Manager open source so I can make it a parallel application. Thanks, Lee

  7. Jonathan,
    Fiber optic ware(s) could quickly excite GLOBAL IT about SUN offerings.
    A diet ‘High in fiber’ wares would be well advised within communication markets as IT bandwidth requirements escalate daily.

  8. RJS

    I’m a hypothetical potential customer with big-computing needs, and I’m confused. For a while now, Sun seems to have been (re)orienting itself towards an approach that favours the commoditisation of computing (as opposed to computers), with software and hardware tailored to achieve “brutal efficiency”, which happens to be exactly what I’m looking for. But isn’t that exactly why I need a mainframe (and now you can get one running Linux, so there’s no software gap obstacle)? Please enlighten me…

  9. I am still trying to watch the videos on any alternative place where these video streams are available ?
    Thanks Kevin for the link to Linux to Solaris Administrators Guide.

  10. Jonathan, a post even better than your last! You must have read “Made to Stick.” Your communication is approaching laser-like perfection. Great choice selecting the Bugatti Veyron as a “concrete” image, as the Heath brothers would say. Having seen a TV special on that rocket ship, your post drove home the point. However, you might want to upgrade your double decker to an image of the “Duece” from Las Vegas. –ski

  11. For Vikas – go to the HELP button if you’re having problems on If you can’t see it email me directly. Everything has been working fine on our end.

  12. well about those click here to try.
    In the company I work, here in Greece, we tried to ask for one of those Sun Fire T2000 for a test. But failed to get one. Is Greece such a small market for you guys?

  13. gil

    This is what Microsoft and Google are up to
    20 years from now what baby-boomer won’t need to find medical information. You can beat them to the punch by buying Looksmart with it’s strong Medical and Educational search. Why let Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have all the fun.

  14. Dean Ross-Smith

    Jonathon- Where’s the sub $4000 server that’s capable of doing 32 threads? I see at a t1000 24 thread capable server for $4000 and a 32 thread t1000 server for $14k. Even if we trade in old equipment for a 20% break it’s still pretty expensive to drink the 32 thread punch(And I could use these boxes for web and database stuff). Don’t get me wrong, I think Sun is back on track for pushing the envelope in hardware/software but the pricing doesn’t match what you’ve put in the blog.

  15. Whenever I explain multi-threading to friends and family, I analogize to a two-lane highway where the cars are going 120 MPH (and get faster ever year) versus a 32 lane highway where the cars are all going 60 MPH (where more lanes are added every year, and the speed of the cars gets faster ever year).

  16. Jon Cohen

    I think the content is great, but the layout of this piece is very strange and makes this blog very difficult to read.

  17. Jonathan, your 32-thread server is over $14K, not $4K. If I’m wrong, ship me a few…

  18. sairam

    Your Great leadership brought new enthusiasm, spirits and ofcourse profits to Sun and making us to see SUN THE DAWN again. Great time to Celebrate.

  19. Jonathan Sparrow

    I really liked the “Project Blackbox mocked up like a bus” picture. Could you show us a larger (desktop sized?) version?

  20. Now design a double decker bus capable of supersonic speed.

  21. OSProponent

    Wow that is exciting to know. You are right, great hardware is deserving of great software and in the dawn of 2008 I see a freight train heading for one industry, that is going to explode Swing onto the scene. So predicting that on your belated 25th anniversary, don’t be shy with resources for your Desktop Java team. And thank you for open sourcing Java.

  22. Kenneth Noisewater

    The whole “car vs. schoolbus” thing was done on Sesame Street back in the ’70s IIRC.. But it’s as true today as it was then: 10mpg carrying 50 people is more efficient than 50mpg carrying 2 people.
    (and when 50mpg can carry 75 people, that’s even better! As long as they’re not doing their Physics homework 😉

  23. Kevin

    Does your new Neptune network card work in your blade servers? I see that HP have just brought out a Virtual Connect architecture for their c-Class blades and they claim it’s unique and ahead of competitors like Sun and IBM. It looks like network virtualization is a key selling point for blade servers.

  24. All greek to me !

    Jon, I suspect the correct word for a 16-core should be “exakaideka-core”, along the lines of triskaidekaphobia which is the irrational fear of number thirteen.

  25. Technology isn’t the best thing there are so many things people are used for look at when you cant find it yourself search for a guide so i don’t think its so much a perfect world because comprehension is something i don’t think we’ll see by computers for a long while.

  26. Ian

    It’s odd that you illustrate your point about an ‘Italian sports car’ with a picture of the Veyron, which is a product of Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S., Molsheim, France!

  27. HC

    We are having a BarCamp here in Madison. I am not an organizer or anything, but I just thought that since you have been focussing on start-ups in your posts lately, you might be interested in this.

  28. Christine Sterner

    Another link to the Linux Migration Guide.
    Other posts of interest on Solaris Developer Center:
    An Accelerated Introduction to Solaris 10: Part 1
    Coming from Linux? Been away and need a refresher? Ben Rockwood gives you a whirlwind tour of Solaris from the ground up.
    Linux to Solaris Diary
    On February 25, 2005, Tim Bray undertook to transfer a nontrivial software development/deployment setup from OS X and Linux to Solaris 10. Follow his journey.
    Comparison of Solaris OS and Linux for Application Developers
    This article compares application program development on the Solaris and Linux operating systems.
    HP Shows Path to Linux for Trusted Solaris Customers
    Glenn Faden gives an engaging rebuttal to HP’s latest strategy, and discusses the compelling features of Solaris Trusted Extensions.
    Comparing SELinux with Solaris Trusted Extensions
    Glenn Faden compares the MLS policies of both systems.

  29. P-

    >>Why let Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have all the fun.
    Posted by gil on February 26, 2007 at 10:40 AM PST # <<
    I’ve never had fun with Microsoft since it left me at Win98. Archaic one might think but Apple did a much better job telling me what iPhone was ALL about and i still can’t figure out what advantages i’d get if i ever went Vista not an XP for that matter. American are synonymous great marketing and advertiser. Having most recognizable brands in the world is one besides who could create and sell a few minutes of air commercial spots for 2.6 million? I think there’s still something that can be said about marketing OS’s in Microsoft’s advertising dept.
    yhoo/goog search “invest_mavin”
    ‘The World’s Greatest Detective.’

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