How the Sun Enterprise 10000 was born
A group of engineers in San Diego left their jobs at well established corporations (especially a large number of former NCR employees) to form their own company. They set out to build massively parallel computers with Sparc processors. The market they were targetting has traditionally been a hard one, and they had a hard time surviving. They were acquired by similar companies and reshaped several times, most notably their second to last acquisition by Cray Research, Inc.. They were also joined with several engineers in Beaverton, Oregon through these mergers.
Under Cray’s leadership, they produced a machine with 64 Sparc processors called the CS6400 (or more affectionately called the SuperDragon since it was an implementation of Sun’s sun4d architecture, similar to what would be found in a SparcCenter 2000 computer from Sun). The CS6400 supported a feature called Dynamic System Domains, meaning that its multiple system boards could be electronically isolated into distinct sets (called domains), and that the partitioning could be changed dynamically while separate instances of the operating system were executing within each domain. Another feature called Alternate Pathing allowed SCSI and ethernet devices to be virtualized on top of pairs of SCSI and ethernet interface cards, allowing an operator to dynamically repartition system boards or even physically remove system boards from the chassis without interrupting I/O services provided to the end users.
A relationship was established between the engineers who built the CS6400 and Sun Microsystems because their large Sparc based servers ran the Solaris Operating Environment. (Well, along with a few low level tweaks in the kernel to get Solaris to work on the slightly different hardware, and to support the Alternate Pathing feature and the Dynamic Reconfiguration feature that allows the kernel to release/claim resources as they’re physically detached/attached.)
When Cray was purchased by SGI, and while SGI analyzed what it had just bought, it found this quirky little division in San Diego building things with Sparc processors and working closely with Sun Microsystems. SGI didn’t really want to keep the group, considering that it clashed with the sorts of technologies that SGI was already producing. So they gladly sold the group off to Sun for about $50 million. Sun liked what the engineers were doing and how their computer systems worked, so it gladly acquired the division just as it was about to complete its follow-on to the CS6400: the Ultra Enterprise Server 10000 (also known as the Starfire).
Development was completed on the new machine under Sun’s leadership, and it took off in the marketplace once the fine products from these brilliant engineers were finally coupled with the vast resources of Sun’s marketing department. The Enterprise 10000 servers were essentially a more modern and refined approach at what the CS6400 was. The Enterprise 10000 had easier, more reliable Dynamic Reconfiguration. (Although, I’d advise using the Solaris 7 or Solaris 8 versions of DR over the Solaris 2.5.1 and Solaris 2.6 versions if possible; but that’s just my personal preference.) It also had faster hardware based on a 16×16 crossbar implementation of Sun’s UPA architecture (sun4u, same as an Ultra-1, except on a larger scale). The server was praised in the computer industry for its success at scaling SMP up to the largest number of processors ever achieved, due in no small part to the amazing ASICs that drive its interconnect with a remarkably fast cache coherency snooping implementation. (All 64 processors can access any of the 64GB of memory in the system with uniform performance measurements of ~12GBytes/sec of bandwidth and ~500ns of latency while keeping their 8MB e-cache’s coherent.)
Scott McNealy considers his company’s acquisition of the Enterprise 10000 and its engineers as the best deal since Microsoft bought DOS. The acquired division was directly responsible for several billion dollars in revenue during its first year within Sun’s ranks, not to mention the other revenue associated with selling service and accessories to go with all of that Enterprise 10000 hardware.
Sun intends to purchase Cray’s Business Systems Division
Eagan, Minn. — Silicon Graphics subsidiary Cray Research, Inc. announced
receipt of a letter-of-intent for Sun Microsystems Computer Company to
acquire Cray’s Business Systems Division, based in Beaverton, Ore.
The preliminary agreement, announced this morning, calls for Sun
Microsystems, based in Mountain View, Calif., to acquire the assets of the
Business Systems Division.
The Cray Business Systems Division designs and manufactures the CS6400
enterprise server, a SPARC/Solaris system that scales to 64-processors and is
Solaris binary compatible with Sun’s enterprise server product line. Upon
completion, the acquisition will extend Sun’s involvement in enterprise-class
server solutions for large scale mission-critical network computing
applications. In addition, Cray’s installed base of SPARC/Solaris customers
will gain access to Sun’s sales and support organization.
“Sun is bringing a whole new generation of technology and products to
market so that customers can build the network ‘backbone’ infrastructure
necessary to carry them into the next century,” said Ed Zander, president of
Sun Microsystems Computer Company. “Sun’s new Ultra Enterprise servers,
combined with last month’s acquisition of fault-tolerant systems supplier
Integrated Micro Products (IMP) plus the anticipated Cray purchase, give Sun
the broadest, most scalable server line in the industry. We are squarely
positioned to be a major powerhouse for industrial-strength commercial
“Cray’s SPARC/Solaris server business does not fit Silicon Graphics’ and
Cray’s long-term MIPS-based product roadmap, but is a good fit with Sun,”
said Cray Research president and chief operating officer Robert H. Ewald.
“Today’s announcement reflects our stated commitment to provide a compatible
path forward for our SPARC/Solaris system customers.”
Ewald noted that Silicon Graphics’ Challenge product line has been highly
successful in addressing the needs of commercial and enterprise customers,
and that Cray’s experience in designing systems for the commercial market
will benefit the Challenge product line.
Cray Research introduced the CRAY CS6400 system in early 1994, pricing the
computer from about $400,000. The chips used in the CS6400 were upgraded to
85 MHz models in the fall of 1995. In early 1995 Cray was reorganized into
two business units, the Supercomputing Unit and the Business Systems Unit.
A key strategic element in the development of the CS6400 was to base the
system on Sun Microsystem’s SPARC technology — a decision that provided Cray
with a popular technology free of chip development cost. It also opened the
door, or the architecture so to speak, allowing over 10,000 off-the-shelf
applications to run on the system with little or no modification. Later the
company enhanced the memory management and I/O capabilities and scalability
up to 64 processors.
Among Cray’s customer base for the CS6400 are Citibank, Bank of America,
MCI, Macklanburg-Duncan and the American Automobile Association.
Upon completion of the acquisition, the Cray Business Systems Division
will report to Sun Microsystems Computer Company’s Enterprise Server and
“With the acquisition of this division, Sun will gain an extremely talented
group of employees with expertise in delivering scalable and reliable
solutions for high-performance decision support, on-line transaction
rocessing, business analysis and technical computing,” said John Shoemaker,
vice president and general manager of Sun Microsystems Computer Company’s
Enterprise Server and Storage Group. “We are deeply committed to supporting
ray’s existing base of CS6400 customers and to providing a continuing flow
of future products for these customers.”
The letter-of-intent is subject to completion of a definitive agreement,
and to the receipt of government approvals. Pending approvals, Sun expects
this transaction to be finalized within 90 days; further details of the
intended acquisition will be released at that time.
Last month, Sun completed its acquisition of Integrated Micro Products
(IMP), a U.K. based supplier of fault-tolerant computing products for
telecommunications companies. With the acquisition of the Cray Business
Systems Division, Sun will offer a range of systems, from low-end desktops to
scalable enterprise servers to fault-tolerant systems, in a single hardware
and software architecture that is fully Solaris binary compatible.
An in-depth overview of Cray’s business unit can be obtained by ordering
HPCwire article 8120, “CRAY UPS THE VOLUME ON ITS COMMERCIAL SOLUTIONS MARKET
See also the Sun Microsystems and Cray Research Web sites.