Home > business, smugmug > Server Analysis – Sun victory!

Server Analysis – Sun victory!

February 7, 2007

We started evaluating server vendors about two weeks ago, and I’m happy to declare a winner. Sun just got my business and I’m excited to see how they stand up to some hardcore scrutiny once they’re in my datacenters.

Everything’s not 100% rosy, though, so in the interests of being transparent and open, let’s take a look at the Pros and Cons of the Sun sales experience, in rough order of importance to me:


  • They’ve embraced Linux and open-source.
  • They’ve embraced x86-64 hardware.
  • Lots of Sun employees use SmugMug. They rallied to make sure we were talking to the right people.
  • Their CEO blogs, and he blogs in an open and honest way. Yes, this was a key selling point for me.
  • They had a perfect platform for us – the X2200 M2 supports twin Opterons with 16 DIMM slots, making it easy and cheap to get 4GB boxes or 32GB boxes and anything in between.
  • Production time is measured in days, not weeks or months.
  • Their lights-out management sounds awesome on paper. (For the x64 gear. The T1000 didn’t have great LOM, I’m afraid).
  • Their engineering rocks. ZFS is drool-worthy, Thumper is a cool piece of hardware, Sun Spots are innovative, and Black Box is just pimp. I’m a geek, what can I say?
  • They’re profitable again.
  • They’re pushing hard (with some bumps along the way) to give love to startups.
  • They’ve been very attentive to us, including:
    • Sending a handful of people, including some fairly heavy hitters, out to our “office” the very next day after my initial post.
    • Getting their hands dirty trying to understand exactly what our use cases are.
    • Agreeing to benchmark and profile some our unusual use cases internally to gather data.
    • Sending quotes over in a nice, useable format (PDF)
    • Getting aggressive on pricing despite the fact that we’re a small company.
    • Keeping in contact with the status of the whole process regularly.
  • After publishing a factual, by-the-numbers review of the T1000 that was less than positive, Sun’s reaction was perfect. They didn’t blow up, deny it, or try to cover it up. Instead, they got us more hardware, invited me to their HQ, and put the right people in the room to understand our use case and the numbers we were seeing. This is ongoing, for the curious, and their response was crucial to today’s decision.
  • The reverent terms they use to describe their CEO, Jonathan, and the direction and pace he’s setting. Having your employees on board 100% is huge.
  • In a prior life, I knew Jonathan briefly and liked him a lot. My father and he worked very closely together through NeXT. Trivia fact of the day: Jonathan’s old company, Lighthouse Design, wrote a game for the NeXT called Void that I absolutely loved. It was a multiplayer LAN game set in space, and it was a blast. Lighthouse was smart enough, though, to put it in the NeXT Software Catalog in the ‘Network Diagnostic’ section so that people could order copies on their company’s dime. True story. (Oh, and as far as I know, Jonathan doesn’t even know we’re investigating Sun. He didn’t grease the wheels or anything to get us a good deal – we’re not unique).


  • The sales process sucks. I don’t mean the sales people – they were great, on-the-ball, and attentive. I’m talking about the internal processes to get approval for things every step of the way. The process would lurch from super-fast “here’s what we need” to super-fast “yes we can get that for you” to molasses-slow “we’re waiting for approval” or “we’re waiting for your Sun ID to come through” and then back to super-fast “let’s fiddle with this detail in the quote” to super-fast “here’s a revised quote”. Large-company-itis got in the way, big time. I needed to have bought this stuff a week earlier, at least, than I actually did. We’re not alone in this particular view.
  • Their up-front prices are higher than Rackable’s. I list this merely because it’s worth mentioning. SmugMug is built upon the concept that “you get what you pay for” and I wholeheartedly believe that. Sun got aggressive about pricing for us, and got their prices to be in the same ballpark as Rackable’s, which was great. But they didn’t meet or beat them, so we will end up paying more up-front. TCO remains to be seen, but we hope with higher-quality gear, service, and management, TCO may be lower. Note that I’m just comparing hardware prices here – I’m happy to pay more for better support (2 hour turnaround, for example), but we’re just talking hardware prices here, which you’d think would be similar since the companies all have access to roughly the same components. I’m also not sure how Ning’s math works and ours doesn’t – I guess it’s because he assumed Sun’s servers cost the same as his whitebox servers, which they clearly aren’t for us.

Now, where did the other vendors fall down?



  • HP employees use and love SmugMug. They were very helpful making sure we got the right sales contacts.
  • Their lights-out management stuff is fantastic.


  • Didn’t have a platform that fit our needs (16 DIMM slots, 2 CPU sockets). Dang.
  • Passed us off to a VAR. I think in my entire career I’ve only seen Value Added Resellers “add value” once. The other hundred or so VARs I’ve dealt with have just been a complete pain.
  • A few of our customers let us know that, theoretically, in some world view, Snapfish competes with SmugMug and is owned by HP. I don’t consider Snapfish to be a competitor in almost any sense of the word, and I’m not sure it’d sway my judgement if it was, but I suppose it could have been a tie-breaker if there had been a tie.



  • Easily the fastest on the draw getting quotes to us. One phone call, boom, we had a PDF in our hands. Bonus points for it being PDF.


  • Didn’t pay attention to our actual needs. Quoted 16GB (8x2GB) machines and 32GB (8x4GB) machines, rather than the 32GB (16x2GB) machines we actually needed.
  • Turned out not to have a platform that does what we needed.
  • Lights-out not built-in to their servers.


Nothing really got off the ground here, so I guess they didn’t really want our business. Made a few calls, but didn’t get much useful back. An employee does love SmugMug, but found out sorta late in the game.



  • Actually has machines that fit our specs. Turned out to be more rare than anticipated – 2 CPU sockets + 16 DIMM slots isn’t as easy to find as I thought.
  • Cheap. In every sense of the word.


  • Weeks have gone by with lots of emails and phone calls, and we still have lots of brand-new expensive broken servers. Can you guess why we started looking for someone else in the first place?
  • Hardware delivery times are long these days.
  • Cheap. In every sense of the word.

So there you have it. I’ll definitely post my thoughts once we’ve had some time to spend with the hardware.

Categories: business, smugmug
  1. February 7, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    Curious to know if you took a look at any blade servers (sun blade 8000, hp c-system, etc) and if not, what your reasoning is for not choosing blades. It seems like they could provide more density in your racks & also be simpler to manage & cable.

  2. February 7, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    I’m definitely interested in blades, but we haven’t used them for one important reason: At our datacenters, power is at a higher premium than space. We have to leave half of some of our racks open anyway simply because we can’t get the power density we want.

    We use a “blade-like” approach to many of our servers, already, though – most of our servers have no disks inside and boot completely over the network using images.

  3. February 8, 2007 at 6:05 am


  4. February 8, 2007 at 10:40 am

    Sun rocks!!!

  5. February 8, 2007 at 11:52 am

    There’s also the build quality that will show long term.
    Over a period of 6 months we bought

  6. Kyle @ RPMWare
    February 8, 2007 at 11:53 am

    Just curious ….

    1. How many servers does it take to run SmugMug?
    2. What will these servers be used for?
    3. What’s with 32GB of RAM? Do you actually use that much?

  7. February 10, 2007 at 1:31 am

    I’m a Sun employee and a long-time smugmug user (as are quite a number of my co-workers). We’re all thrilled that this worked out! Cheers!


  8. JohnK
    February 12, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to post this feedback – it is important for IT providers to learn what differentiates technology companies in the real world & I believe that this type of frank yet polite information will be well received and put to good use.

    -IS small to mid solution provider of many years, currently working in storage systems

  9. Tmats
    February 12, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Great to hear that Sun worked deligently to win your business. I liked your details… woderful blog entry.

  10. Lucy
    February 12, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    If the background color could change to others, that will be more comfortable for eyes vs this white-black.

  11. MN
    February 13, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    Thanks for the important feedback. Disclosure – I am a Sun Product Manager in the X64 space.

    We are particularly appreciative of the detailed feedback you have given regarding the prospect-to-order process. I think we can all be open about the current issues with it. Suffice it to say, there is widespread awareness of this within Sun and active work to address it. We also greatly appreciate the product cost feedback. Clearly, TCOO is an important metric however entry cost is also important and we also take this criticism to heart. Here again, there is active work in this area.

    Many thanks! This is highly valuable!

  12. February 13, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    Just another Sun employee and faithful smugmug user. Smugmug rocks and I’m even happier with it now knowing MY hard work is helping support YOUR hard work, which put together keeps my friends and family poking at my life in photos via smugmug. I was impressed at your very candid appraisal of “Large-company-itis”, something we here at Sun deal with every day. Not clear what the cure is, but I see insiders working to ‘cut the crap’ and get down to business more and more, so maybe there is hope! And lastly, while my opinion may be somewhat biased – Sun hardware rocks, and that comes from an unwavering commitment to investment in R & D. See Dell’s engineering, aka: remote management (or lack thereof) for a classic example of this. Dell may have happy stock investors, but Sun creates BETTER hardware, and that *will* turn into a better ROI for you as your TCO goes lower and lower over time.

  13. February 20, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Can you post more details about your Rackable experience? When you say “cheap in every way” can you talk more about this? I’m an investor in Rackable and want to understand how they are engaging with their potential sales relationships. Thanks, Kevin

  14. February 22, 2007 at 9:40 pm


    I found your company because I work at Sun Microsystems who posted a link to your Blog internally.

    Wow! I took the tour, posted photos and was sold. Now I’m a customer and my family, who live across the west, are grateful for your service.

    I’m also the Mayor of Erie Colorado (www.erieco.gov) (Pop 15,000 – Boulder Suburb) and have started to post Town photos.

    I agree passion is what gets things done and I’m happy your family has passion for digital photo sharing.

    Best Regards,

    Andrew Moore
    Mayor, Town of Erie
    Director, Sun Microsystems

  15. Dale
    April 25, 2007 at 7:29 am

    I must agree with your assessment. I have been to the HP, IBM and SUN corporate dog and ponies at each of their individual headquarters and their is no doubt that the SUN guys love their company and what they are doing more than everyone else. Sun and HP both went out of their way to sell what they had technically and put the right people in front of us. IBM on the other hand strictly try to market it us into buying it because we are a large mainframe shop. When that didn’t work they swapped to winning deals on the golf course with the execs who haven’t ever logged into an open systems server and the only reason they used the pc’s was to check email. Amazingly our initial quotes went from IBM bladeservers to a P-Series 595 and finally a P 560 stating virtualization was going to solve our problems. Funny since half of the environment runs windows (they didn’t mention how they were going to make windows run on the P-series). Deals are not completed yet, but the Techs are pulling for SUN and/or HP. Dell was a non-player for us.

  16. Dr. Kenneth Noisewater
    May 25, 2007 at 9:51 am

    Blade servers IMO are only worth it if space/power are at an EXTREME premium, or if they cost less than the equivalent # of 1U servers when populated.

    As far as the Sun x86 hardware goes, it’s pretty good (hardware engineering is mostly exquisite), but I would have preferred something similar to OpenFirmware instead of generic crappy 5min to boot ‘hit Ctrl-X to frobozz your shiznag’ BIOS. The web-based LOM is very cool, but the x86 CLI/serial LOM is very strange (though it does handle SSH, which is a big win).

    We also deal with a reseller because their discount is better than Sun would offer our company, and it’s somewhat annoying. Sun really needs to be able to do custom hardware config as easily as Dell, especially if you order >10 of the same thing at a time.

    We got some of the first production T2000 servers this side of the Mississippi, and there’ve been growing pains (also largely due to the Solaris 8->Solaris 10 transition, there’s just enough stuff different to make life Interesting, in the traditional Chinese sense), but we’ve seen huge improvements in Web and App server performance and a significant (dollar- and infrastructure managementwise) reduction in power demand.

    My work workstation will still be Linux though, at least until there’s a Solaris version of UT2004 😉

  17. June 15, 2007 at 2:45 am

    Very neatly written post. Gives a good picture on the whole sequence of events that eventually led SmugMug to prefer Sun over various other vendors. Being a Sun employee, this is certainly a proud moment for me and many others working @ Sun:)

  1. February 8, 2007 at 1:43 pm
  2. February 8, 2007 at 10:34 pm
  3. February 8, 2007 at 10:46 pm
  4. February 9, 2007 at 5:49 pm
  5. February 13, 2007 at 12:32 am
  6. February 20, 2007 at 3:54 pm
  7. April 16, 2007 at 2:05 pm
  8. December 13, 2007 at 11:05 am
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