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Sun Blade, reviewed by Alan Williamson

When Sun Microsystems rings you up and asks whether or not you'd be interested in playing with a new desktop system they've just announced that's aimed at Java developers, amongst many, what can you do but nod affirmatively. After much paperwork to allow the machine to leave the shores of the U.S., it arrived here in Scotland where it was immediately unpacked and fired up. That was two months ago.

So how did I get on? Well, let me take you through the trials and tribulations of working with a Sun desktop machine, as opposed to a Windows-based system, to develop Java applications.

The first thing I noticed about the physical box is that it's undeniably drop-dead gorgeous. Traditionally Apple computers have always triumphed in this area over and above the dull, lifeless PC boxes. Sit an Apple beside a PC and each time the Apple beckons you closer. Sit an Apple beside the Blade system and suddenly the Apple has serious competition on its hands in the looks department. Increasingly, hardware manufacturers are moving away from "plain-Jane" boxes to the more eye-pleasing sexier packaging. So hurrah on that score.

I asked to have the Forte development tools preinstalled on the machine so I could start building as soon as it was powered up. As you can see from the pullout, the specification of the machine is very impressive. Sun's biggest selling point with this machine is the 64-bit processing power for under $999 and, without question, you do get a lot of machine for that price. But does a Java developer really need or care about 64-bit processing? I was about to find out now that I was set to begin the trial period.

Now it's fair to say from the outset that as much as I enjoy the Linux/Solaris world for servers, Windows NT is still my preferred desktop choice. So to be forced to use the standard Solaris desktop was indeed a bittersweet pill to swallow, and a pill that was indeed swallowed. I did put up with it, and any criticisms I may pose here are not indicative of the desktop software. I appreciate that you can download and install alternative Windows managers, but I simply didn't have the time to go through this procedure.

However, the pill did indeed have a sugar coating in the form of the preinstalled SunPCi coprocessor card, which at the time of the review was a 600MHz Celeron processor. This was a complete Windows machine within a window and it worked wonderfully. Sun is shipping this dual-computing feature with the Blade to ease the transition for people like myself that are hell-bent on staying with the Windows world, but would like to have the 64-bit processing power and all the other benefits the Blade system can offer.

My only issue with this aspect of the system is that the communication between the virtual Windows machine and the Blade could have been made a lot easier. Ironically, you can copy and paste text between the two with the clipboard, but you can't easily access files. The Blade system's file space is distinct and not directly accessible from the virtual Windows machine. I was informed you can FTP or even set up an SMB/NFS channel between the two, but this isn't set up from the start. You literally have two different machines sharing a keyboard/mouse and monitor, but sharing nothing else. You even need to put in an extra network connection as the ability to share the same network connection doesn't exist.

I believe this to be more of a selling point than an actual practical feature. I couldn't get DVDs or even audio CDs to work, so my initial excitement to get WinAmp up and running was muted very quickly. Now I'm sure much of this is due to configuration and, if this is the case, I hope the final version of Blade is all sorted and ready to run without customers having to dash to the online Web sites for help.

So how did I get on with Java? Well, I copied over one of our internal product sources, totaling around 32,000 lines of code, which I thought would be a good starting point. After firing up Forte and creating the necessary projects, I was happily compiling. No immediate problems. Couldn't really complain.

After a week of this I decided to install a number of application servers on the machine and start testing it from a server's point of view. It's fair to say that Sun was horrified when they heard of this, as the machine wasn't designed as a server but as a desktop. Not too sure where the fire was as it performed admirably, and we put the machine under a lot of stress testing; the combination of Solaris 8 with an UltraSparc 500MHz CPU made light work of our tests.

I took the machine into this world on purpose. Many Linux servers are installed on ex-desktop machines, giving them a whole new lease on life. Seeing the price of the basic Blade system, this brings it into the world of low-end server budgets, and I wanted to see how well it would perform in this world. The results were good and we would happily take a Blade system to run in a server environment.

Should you decide to purchase a Sun Blade, a word of warning. When visiting the main Web site, www.sun.com/desktop/sunblade100/, don't be fooled into thinking you'll be getting a flat-screen panel. It's not part of the standard package, but you have to do a lot of digging on the Web site to discover this. Don't worry too much about the lack of a flat-screen; I wasn't that impressed with it and LCD technology has a long way to go to meet the crispness and sharpness of traditional CRT monitors.

On the whole I liked the machine. I don't think the benefit of 64-bit processing is going to be much of a gain for the average Java developer. I also don't believe you're going to get many developers to give up their Windows machine for a Sun Blade system. If you're a developer who requires a reliable server platform running in the background and doesn't have the budget for a separate machine, the Sun Blade is for you.

That said, it's a fine-looking machine when all's said and done.

Sun Microsystems
901 San Antonio Rd
Palo Alto, California 94303
Web: www.sun.com/desktop/sunblade100/

Sun Blade 100 Workstation:

  • 500MHz UltraSPARC-IIe Processor, 256-KB L2 Cache
  • 128MB memory (1x128MB DIMM)
  • Sun PGX64 On-Board Graphics Accelerator
  • 15GB 7200 RPM EIDE disk
  • 48x CD-ROM drive
  • 1.44MB floppy
  • Smart Card Reader
  • Solaris 8 Installed (RTU)
  • 3 PCI I/O slots
  • 2 EIDE disk bays
  • 10/100M-bit Ethernet
  • 4 USB, 2 IEEE 1394, 1 serial and 1 parallel port

Author Bio
Alan Williamson is editor-in-chief of Java Developer's Journal. In his spare time he holds the reins at n-ary (consulting) Ltd, one of the first companies in the UK to specialize in Java at the server side. Reach him at [email protected] (www.n-ary.com) and rumor has it he welcomes all suggestions and comments! [email protected]

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