% fortune -ae paul murphy

Comparing cost/benefit change: x86 vs. SPARC

On September 19th, 2001, Dell's US web site recommended the 17-inch Dell GX150 with 128 MB of RAM, a 20 GB hard disk, a 900-MHz Celeron, and Windows 2000 for desktop use in mid to large businesses. With Office 2000 the package came to $1,698.

Today, not quite four years later, their recommendation for "mainstream business and institutional users requiring robust office productivity solutions" is the GX520. The default configuration for which includes a 2.8Ghz P4, 256MB of RAM, a 40GB disk, a 17 inch LCD, and Windows/XP Processional SP2 and costs a total of $1,663 including $499 for Microsoft Office Professional 2003 directly from Microsoft.

Over very nearly four years, therefore, both disk and RAM have doubled; the CRT has been replaced by an LCD; the processor has gone from 900Mhz to 2,800Mhz; and the total price has fallen a resounding $35.

Both the Gx150 then, and GX520 now, are intended mainly for business desktop use. In that context few would argue, I think, that Microsoft's 2003/XP SP2 and Office products aren't technically better now than their predecessors from four years earlier but fewer yet, I think, would seriously maintain that the improvement matters in terms of everyday deployment and use. Basically costs have stayed about the same, and benefits have too as improvements in the combined hardware and software package have barely kept pace with other changes in deployment complexity, user expectations, and external threats.

On that same date, September 19, 2001, Sun offered their 440Mhz SPARC 10 with 512 MB of RAM, 2 x 20 GB disk, CD-ROM & floppy drives, a 21-inch monitor, and Solaris 8 for $5,345.

Today the Sun Blade 150, with a 650Mhz USIIi CPU, 512MB of RAM, a 21 Inch monitor, an 80GB disk, and Solaris 10 pre-installed lists at $2,795.

Both the ultraSPARC 10 then and the Sun Blade 150 now are intended mainly for use as direct or indirect front ends to bigger machines - i.e. as sysadmin or developer workstations in functions where SPARC/Solaris compatibility is important but high performance is not required. The software change, however, has been more dramatic than the hardware change - anything that worked on the UltraSPARC 10 under Solaris 8 works on the Sun Blade 150 today, but the operational and developer software shipped with the 150 is unambigiously better, faster, more powerful, and therefore more useful than its predecessors.

When you look at evolution within each pairing, the two PCs and the two SPARCstations, the difference is stunning. In the PC pairing, hardware performance more than doubled, the software improved a bit, but costs stayed about the same, and people would be hard pressed to point to a verifiable increase in the benefit of ownership. In the SPARC pairing the hardware improved a bit, software performance and capabilities improved tremendously, costs fell by 48%, and it's easy to point at new tools and capabilities -like Dtrace and StarOffice- that should translate directly to increased benefits to owners.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.