The commoditization of Sun hardware

The company I work at as a Unix Administrator has a side business supporting Sun hardware for numerous companies in town. I think this side business grew over the years as a way for my employer to subsidize the cost of maintaining a large spare hardware inventory for their own Sun equipment. Before they got heavily into Linux clustering on commodity hardware they were almost exclusively a sun shop.

Having a hardware background I was chosen to support a couple of our clients. One of my clients has several hundred Sun Ultra 40 desktops, some in warranty, some out of warranty. These machines are essentially PC’s designed by Sun. They have a well engineered case and have a good, solid construction. However, some of the items they ship with are complete garbage in my opinion.

These workstations retail for seven thousand dollars or more and yet they ship with a Sun Type 7 rev2 keyboard that is so cheap and flimsy it feels like a keyboard you’d get at the dollar store. Plus, the pre revision 3 keyboards have a poorly engineered USB hub in them that causes the keyboard to become unresponsive.

They also feature Nvidia Quadro FX 3500’s which cost roughly $900 to replace. These cards seem to have an exceptionally high rate of failure, I’ve replaced 8 or 9 of them now since January, all with the exact same problems. The card develops artifacts on the display that appear even at the machine’s post. It appears to be an issue with the memory on the cards and I have a feeling it has to do with the memory being in a BGA type package. Similar to the XBOX 360’s BGA chip issues with heat.

I realize that the market for expensive sun hardware is limited but you can’t expect customers to pay that sun premium for garbage they could buy from Dell or HP for half the cost. By charging the premium Sun price but delivering marginal PC hardware they are going to alienate their existing enterprise customer base who expect a certain level of quality for buying Sun. I know the customers I talk to are not impressed at all with the recent AMD based hardware.

UPDATE: As of July 18th 2008 we have replaced 18 percent of the deployed Sun Nvidia Quadro FX 3500s. Sun has since discontinued that part and replaced it with a Nvidia Quadro FX 4600, which is $1495 USD, twice the price of the 3500s. We have decided to replace the sun part with a generic FX3500. I seriously doubt that those workstations will be replaced with Sun hardware in a few months when it’s time to replace them, a similarly equiped HP workstation is less than half the price and it comes with a 3 year warranty.