Sun Microsystems Computer Co. has unveiled a new line of high- horsepower computing systems meant to provide banks and other companies with a low-cost alternative to mainframe systems.

With the new line of network-based servers, called Ultra Enterprise, Sun is making an overt play to take bank business from Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

"This is taking network computing to the mainstream," said Anil Godray, a vice president of marketing for the Mountain View, Calif.-based company.

Because the volume of data that banks must store is so large and so critical, banks have traditionally relied on mainframe computing systems.

But officials at Sun said their new line is designed to be as powerful and reliable as a mainframe, only less expensive. "Our new machine will offer 50% more performance at half the price," Mr. Godray said.

The Ultra Enterprise line includes a range of models priced from about $30,000 to $1 million, Mr. Godray said.

Common components - like processors, disk drives, power supplies, and memory - are as easily swapped among different servers as light bulbs are among lamps, according to the company.

"What this class of system allows you to do is to store all your data in a network-based environment," said Carl Stolle, director of server marketing for Sun.

"This allows you much faster access to the data, but still allows you to store the same volume," he added.

Mr. Godray said the new product line is aimed at offering banks "much greater flexibility."

"We don't expect people to be unplugging the mainframe and throwing it away," Mr. Godray said. "What we do expect is that people will be spared the expense of buying a new mainframe or updating the existing mainframe."

The difference, Mr. Godray said, comes down to "does the bank spend a million dollars buying a mainframe update, or does it spend $250,000 to buy this new server?"

For Sun, the new product line represents a strategic swipe at the computing giants that have traditionally cornered bank business. Mr. Godray said that IBM and Hewlett-Packard offer a "patchwork" of network-based offerings, as opposed to Sun's comprehensive suite.

"For the first time, you really do not have to compromise when it comes to price point and scalability," Mr. Godray said.

Stephen C. Dube, an analyst with Wasserstein Perella Securities who follows computer technology companies, said that the Ultra Enterprise line "does put Sun up in the top edge of the competitive ranks" - but probably not for long.

"This is a leapfrog business," Mr. Dube said. "The caveat is that Hewlett and IBM and everyone else will roll out products later in the year."

Mr. Dube said that within the last two years, Sun has staged a "full- court press" into building the infrastructures necessary to capture the corporate market.

And they have been successful at it, Mr. Dube said. "They have developed a great deal of credibility in the enterprise computing environment," he said.

Mr. Godray said the Ultra Enterprise system has been operating at a few test sites around the world. The company has taken a handful of early orders.

"When we turn on our entire sales force globally, there should be a pretty good pent-up demand," Mr. Godray said, adding that Sun anticipates "shipping in volume in May and June and onward."

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