Sun woos Windows users with try-and-buy offer and discounts for start-ups

Away from the headlines about its takeover by Oracle, Sun Microsystems is reaching out to Windows-driven businesses in Europe to become their hardware brand of choice. Although Sun is better known for its Unix-based Solaris technology and Java programming language, it makes a huge range of x86/64 AMD and Intel-based servers, storage systems and desktop machines.

Sun is coy about the exact figures but analysts estimate that 50% of the Sun Fire and blade servers it ships are sold by its channel to run Windows. Certainly, Will Trotman, systems marketing manager at Sun UK, is willing to confirm that "50% of our installations in the UK are non-Solaris". And with an attractive try-and-buy offer and deals aimed specifically at new firms, Sun is quietly raising its game in the Windows market.

"The early adopters and the guys that have taken to Sun x86 technology and our kind of attached storage technology have been the Sun install base, first and foremost," says Trotman. "But we have a focus on start-ups – it’s been a focus for a number of years. We’re pretty active in that market in terms of events and activities to appeal to the start-up company and help them to understand and deploy technology that’s going to be scalable and cost-effective. OK, they might look at open source stuff such as Linux or, in our case, Open Solaris because, in essence, it’s free to roll out but they do also run standard Microsoft apps in that environment too. So we find we pick them up from that start-up end as well as coming down from the data centre."

In fact, you don't have to be a start-up in the strictest sense to get discounts on Sun gear. To qualify for the Sun Startup Essentials programme, a company can be five years old. As long as you have less than 150 employees, you're in. And the offer applies to the majority of EMEA countries (you can check the full list here).

Another offer is Sun's try-and-buy scheme where you can walk away with anywhere up to £70,000's worth of server and storage gear and trial it for free for 60 days. If you decide you want to purchase after that, Sun gives you some steep discounts. Indeed, users that apply to test hardware before the end of this month can get discounts of between 20% and 40% (see Sun's UK website for more details).

Trotman says: "That’s an active programme which runs in most regions worldwide. It is heavily deployed in Europe and we find our x86 technology particularly is the most popular, and then typically our storage solutions would be next. So that programme’s been very good for us. It’s great for just giving customers the opportunity to try stuff that’s risk-free, no cost. We even handle the shipping."

Such an initiative displays considerable confidence in one's own goods. But then Sun has never been shy of claiming a technological edge. It says that of the 2000 customers around the world to take it up on its try-and-buy challenge, 60% end up as new customers. Microsoft, it would seem, is itself not immune the charms of Sun's servers. It recently turned its Microsoft Partner Solution Center on the main Redmond campus into a Sun Fire x64 shop.

"They’ve been doing a big virtualisation project internally and the Partner Solution Centre is an area where ISV partners come and install their software and do various benchmarkings and things like this and customers can come in and see it operating in a Windows environment," explains Trotman. "And they consolidated a very large HP environment down to Sun; 700 HP servers down to 12 Sun Fire 4450 servers, which are our 24-core boxes."

This particular project was also a showcase for Hyper-V on Windows Server 2008 and System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008. "We spend time ensuring that our kit is certified and available around a number of key things such as Hyper-V for Microsoft virtualisation, VMware virtualisation and, in particular, Microsoft architectures like Exchange and Essential Business Server," says Trotman. "So we do reference architectures for customers and partners to help them understand how they size our kit into those types of environments."

Pricing is, of course, a key factor if Sun is to win over Windows users from the Dells and HPs of this world. Trotman says that Intel-based servers such as its Sun Fire X4150 or X4170 are "bang on the market price" while customers may well be prepared to pay a slight premium for the space-saving capabilities of, say, a compact AMD-based 8-way X4600 that comes as a 4U rack.

"If the question is 'why is Sun relevant to a Windows customer?', I guess we would position ourselves as bringing value into a commodity space," he says. "Windows in particular is deployed on x86 hardware and we utilise our enterprise capabilities so that with a lot of the technology we develop at that high-end, particularly in integration, power utilisation and things like that, we feel we can design a better, more efficient, smaller box that customers can go and run their Windows OS on."

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