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Sun Microsystems is looking to grow its foothold in the blade market and entice new and current customers to stay with its products by offering a unique hardware replacement and upgrade service.

On Jan. 9, the Santa Clara, Calif., company is scheduled to roll out its latest blade offering, the Sun Blade X8420, and detail a new program that will offer its Sun Blade 8000 customers an annual program that will upgrade a data center’s hardware.

The program, called the Sun Refresh Service, is a subscription service for customers that the company will include with the installation of Sun Blade 8000 series server. For a fee of $23,000 per month, customers will be eligible for up to three hardware architecture upgrades during the 3½ years of the contract.

“What we have is a program that pretty much breaks some basic truisms that have been out there in the computer industry,” said Michael McNerney, director of Sun’s blade server product line.

“We don’t see this anywhere else,” McNerney said. “We see this as a breakaway opportunity. This is not about how people think about traditional computer buying with a traditional depreciation or leasing cycle.”

Click here to read more about Sun and its return to the blade market.

The refresh program is being marketed for those customers in high-performance computer markets, such as Web-based businesses with highly dynamic infrastructures where software costs outweigh those of hardware, and where getting the best performance out of a server is critical, McNerney said.

In one way, Sun is looking to return to its innovative roots while finding a new way to sell blades and services.

Sun was one of the first OEMs to offer blade servers and joined a market that included rivals IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell. After some technological problems with its first set of blade offerings, the company dropped out of the market for most of 2005, but has started to regain its footing with its Sun Blades.

According to two recent reports by IDC and Gartner, the server market increased by more than 9 percent in the third quarter of 2006, and the growth was led, in part, by an increase in demand for blades.

Although Sun showed a respectable growth in the quarter, the blade market was dominated by IBM, which held 42.3 percent of the market. That was followed by HP with 35 percent, according to IDC.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, in Hayward, Calif., said that after a fast start and then withdrawal from the blade market, the company now appears to be making a comeback with the Sun Blade line as well as its family of “Galaxy” x86 servers, based on Advanced Micro Devices’ Opteron chips.

More intriguing for King is the service offering, which he said is unique in the server space and a sign that Sun may be returning to its traditional innovative roots.

Click here to read more about Sun’s latest high-performance computer offerings.

“I do think the refresh service is pretty interesting,” he said. “I think what you have is a vendor that is coming up with a workable blade architecture and a server module that will be able to sustain multiple modules. One of the real interesting benefits of blades is that when you have new processors, you don’t have to upgrade the whole system.”

This service that Sun has created, King said, will appeal to businesses that require peak performance from their servers and need to upgrade to the newest and most powerful processors in the market.

“The question here is how to keep up with that demand in a fairly painless way,” King said. “What Sun is offering is interesting.”

The new four-socket X8420 Sun Blade uses AMD’s dual-core Opteron 8000 processor, which runs at 2.8GHz, and offers an externally accessible hot-pluggable I/O adapter.

The Sun Blade X8420 uses Sun’s own Solaris 10 operating system.

The entry-level price for the Sun Blade is $13,095 per module and is immediately available. The refresh service is available for customers in the United States and will be sold directly through Sun and also through the company’s channel partners.

Currently, Sun only offers AMD Opteron processors for its general-purpose blades. The company does, however, offer Opteron and its own “Niagara” UltraSPARC 1 processors for its specialty telecom blades.

Asked about a general-purpose blade with a Niagara processor, McNerney said Sun is continuing to invest in its blade technology and expand its portfolio, but he declined to offer a timetable or say if the company had any specific plans for a Niagara-based blade.

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