Sun Microsystems Inc. has launched its heaviest competitive assault on mainframe computing, with Chase Manhattan Corp. helping lead the charge.

In announcing a large-scale technology initiative last week called datacenter.com, Sun turned a spotlight on the New York banking company as one of its prominent system deployers and allies.

Chase bought the 1,000th Sun Enterprise 10000 server, the high-end system commonly known as Starfire. It epitomizes how Sun Microsystems is trying to insinuate its network-friendly processing approach into the back rooms historically occupied by mainframes, typically those made by International Business Machines Corp.

Sun called attention to Chase and Starfire in a self-congratulatory way.

The flexible, Unix-standard configuration, at prices that begin at $875,000, has been on the market 18 months. The 500th server was shipped last June 1, and it took eight months more to reach 1,000.

The system is being applied to heavy-duty tasks like enterprise resource planning, on-line transaction processing, and data warehousing. Chase Manhattan is partitioning Starfire three ways: risk analysis in the capital markets fiduciary services group, and two sets of check imaging and presentment applications in the check and commercial loan operations group. The latter includes a service for wholesale lockbox customers that is to be introduced in Texas in April, with New York, Europe, and Asia to follow.

That partitioning, which allows multiple applications to run independently, "is becoming more important to IT (information technology) managers because it allows them to effectively use their resources for resource pooling, sharing, and isolation," said Shahin Khan, director of marketing in Sun's data center and high-performance computing group.

Rob Hall, the company's vice president for the financial services industry, said that despite the massive capacity of Starfire-up to 64 processors and 20 terabytes of storage, which can challenge and outperform IBM System/390 installations and other competition-"it also offers excellent availability and manageability."

"Financial institutions are drawn to the system because it is not just a hot box," Mr. Hall said.

"Information technology performance is a competitive weapon in the global economy," said Richard Mangogna, chief information officer for the global bank at Chase, whose Starfire system with Sun Solaris Operating Environment software has 12 central processing units, 12 gigabytes of system memory, and 350 gigabytes of disk storage.

"We work closely with our key vendors, like Sun, to give us a leg up on the competition and ensure that our IT performance is second to none," Mr. Mangogna said.

Sun worked hard for that kind of endorsement. Masood Jabbar, president of the Palo Alto, Calif., company's computer systems unit, who is Mr. Hall's boss and oversees about half of Sun Microsystems' 27,000 employees, said he took personal responsibility for the relationship with Chase.

"They taught us a lot about their requirements as a giant global bank," Mr. Jabbar said in an interview shortly after the formal announcement of datacenter.com at a New York press conference. Mr. Mangogna is a key adviser to the company and is buying into other aspects of Sun strategy, including Java programming and middleware, Mr. Jabbar said.

Datacenter.com is a stark manifestation of Sun's familiar motto, "the network is the computer." The company is already a primary source of the technology that drives the Internet. It aims to capitalize further by taking that network computing philosophy into mainframe processes.

"Sun intends to wrest away the mantle from IBM in the data center by driving the architecture and technologies required in this Internet-centric age," said one of the more assertive of Sun's press release passages.

The corollary is that companies can "deliver information virtually anywhere, any time and capitalize on the new breed of network-enabled applications that better link businesses with customers, suppliers, and partners."

That said, there is still and may always be a place for mainframes.

"Datacenter.com is not a mainframe replacement," Mr. Jabbar said. "We say it is a mainframe affinity program, because it is very expensive to move off mainframes.

"This evolution won't happen overnight. People won't just dump their mainframe applications."

But the inexorable growth of the Internet, the volatility and unpredictability of electronic commerce developments, and the need for connectivity and open communications, are changing the way companies manage technology and plan for the future.

"Datacenter.com is especially suited to handle Web transactions," Mr. Jabbar said. "Associated with that, our SunConnect architecture is being embraced as the mechanism for applications to talk to each other."

He said Sun Microsystems, in its own recent transformation from the mainframes it relied on since 1989, lived through what customers like Chase and the data base companies Equifax Inc. and Lexis/Nexis are now going through.

"We found we could not respond effectively to changes in the marketplace," said Mr. Jabbar, a 12-year Sun veteran who became president of the computer systems division just over a year ago. "It is difficult to get real-time information out of mainframes. We could not support the dynamics of our own business."

Egghead.com, now an exclusively on-line software retailer, has bought into datacenter.com because it combines "the power of mainframe computing with on-line innovation," said chief technology officer Tom Collins.

"Sun's whole vision blends the predictability and security our customers demand with the innovation and opportunity presented by the Internet," said Rick Lessard, Equifax's senior vice president of technology.

Mr. Jabbar said he learned from Chase that risk-management data requirements that used to be fulfilled within 24 hours now have to be delivered within an hour. "The Internet has compressed time," he said, and the traditional batch processing mode won't cut it.

"Banks are in a race against time," Mr. Jabbar said of one of his biggest business segments. "They are in a position to lead us into this new world. Electronic commerce cannot be done without some kind of banking infrastructure. They also have a vested interest in the area of security and they are driving us very hard in that direction."

He said it is a feather in Sun's cap that "all the major Swiss banks are doing business with us. They are pushing the envelope on security."

Sun made a separate announcement of financial import: the formation of Sun Microsystems Finance to help customers with credit or leases for equipment and software.

Though financing could always be hunted down, "until now there was no consistent, global financing arm," said Steve McGowan, vice president of finance for Sun computer systems.

"The set of financing options for customers complements datacenter.com," he said, because there will be greater demand for costlier, high-end systems. GE Capital Vendor Financial Services will serve as a strategic ally in the venture, and Mr. McGowan said that by June there will be 150 "financing specialists" in the field to assist customers.

"We are answering three critical customer requirements," Mr. Jabbar said: "Financing solutions that result in lowest cost of ownership, innovative and flexible financing options that span the technology's entire life cycle, and the ability to work seamlessly with customers that do business in multiple locations around the globe."

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