In the wake of last year's highly publicized, extremely embarrassing outages
at their online auction site, eBay has put out for bid a special contract
for its infrastructure/back end. The present supplier, Sun Microsystems,
is not a shoo-in for the contract, and is expected to face stiff competition
in the form of Unix systems from Compaq, HP, and IBM.
main eBay servers are Sun's E10000 "Starfire", their largest server product.
IBM will try to beat that with its RS/6000 S80, its high-end Unix server,
which recently has made headlines by surpassing Sun's best transaction-processing
valuable (we estimate the server price tag at $5-10 million), the contract's
symbolic value exceeds the actual dollars involved. An indication of this
is the dueling PR statements from Sun and IBM: "This is more than a blow
to Sun's advertising campaign," James Sciales, an IBM spokesman, was quoted
regarding their recent big win at Network Solutions Inc. "In Big Blue's
fight to regain market share from Sun for computers that power the Internet,
it's a case study of what IBM is best known for - leading technology."
Doug van Aman responded by downplaying the server shift. "IBM sold Network
Solutions one system," he said. "We have many, many, many systems at Network
Solutions. The (Sun) E450 server is a smaller server, while the (IBM)
S80 is their largest server. They won one account, but we still have an
extremely good relationship with Network Solutions."
Beating Sun is a big incentive to its competitors, so the companies are
expending the extra effort to get this particular brass ring.
The problem with being (or claiming to be) the leader in a market, such
as Web/Internet infrastructure, is that everyone shoots at you. With the
highly visible - and to some, annoying - "we're the dot in dot-com" campaign,
Sun painted a big target on its front, and back, and sides. In recent
months, both IBM (with its RS/6000) and Compaq (with its 64- and 96-CPU
ProLiant configurations) have beaten up Sun's E10000 (Starfire) server
in transaction processing performance.
highly embarrassing outages at eBay provided an opportunity for anyone
with a reliability and performance story to take their best shot at prying
Sun loose. The Network Solutions A.root server contract loss adds fuel
to the "Sun is vulnerable" fire. If Sun gets displaced at eBay, the perceived
impact will be far greater than the actual revenue lost - we can envision
rivals referring to Sun as "the not in dot-com". This only increases the
pressure on Sun and its rivals.
Sun's defense: the Solaris OS is generally considered highly reliable,
scalable, and powerful, and its users are generally very loyal to it.
There are lots of applications written for it - something IBM/AIX and
HP/HP-UX lack. We also appreciate Sun's tying of pay (for some) to system
uptime - it shows a focus on what's important. We feel the UltraSPARC
II is getting long in the tooth, so it will behoove Sun to get the UltraSPARC
III shipped ASAP. OS loyalty can only carry a product so far; if the hardware
is the cause of lowered performance, customers may find their patience
tested a little too much.
point of clarification: although Compaq is in the running for eBay, it
is not the ProLiant series that is being considered, despite the mention
of the ProLiant performance figures earlier. ProLiant is primarily a Windows-based
line. The Compaq products being considered are its NonStop (formerly from
The general corporate user will find the eBay dogfight of little interest
(other than intellectual curiosity) in the short term. This is for two
- How many can afford multimillion-dollar systems?
- Except for someone who is doing a lot of buying and selling on eBay,
who really cares?
What is of greater interest is the long-term effects:
- If Sun loses eBay and continues to lose big-name accounts, are they
doomed? (We don't think so, but it's not an impossibility.)
- If Sun loses, will they make fundamental changes to their product
structuring, such as reducing prices or making their systems "bullet
proof"? (E10000 transaction unit costs are presently around double those
of an IBM RS/6000 S80. Reliability is often relative, the SunTone program
is long on goals but we'd prefer more specifics like uptime guarantees.)
- Can IBM or Compaq gain credibility as Unix vendors? (HP already has
better Unix market presence than the other two.)
Mainstream customers care about the first two questions, since the answers
may make a difference in their purchasing patterns or the continuity of
operations. Customers may find that the once-compelling Sun "story" is
no longer far enough ahead of the competition to justify the high price
tag. The third question is more for market watchers, and the answer is
more dependent on the number of applications available for each product
line than upon the hardware.