Sun counters NT trend with debut of Darwin workstations


Sun counters NT trend with debut of Darwin workstationsCompany hopes line will bolster standing in PACS marketOne of the biggest stories in the PACS market in 1997 was the shift to Windows NT-based workstations, thanks to the market's

Sun counters NT trend with debut of Darwin workstations

Company hopes line will bolster standing in PACS market

One of the biggest stories in the PACS market in 1997 was the shift to Windows NT-based workstations, thanks to the market's perception of the Microsoft operating system as a good platform for powerful yet low-cost workstations. Many PACS vendors have either ported their software entirely to Windows NT or have added NT-based versions to their product line.

The gains experienced by Windows NT have typically come at the expense of Unix-based workstations provided by vendors such as Sun Microsystems. The Mountain View, CA-based workstation developer has an ace up its sleeve, however. Sun last month introduced a new line of low-cost Unix-based workstations designed in part to combat the inroads that NT is making into the medical imaging market.

At a mid-January product introduction in San Francisco, Sun highlighted two new workstation lines: Darwin, an inexpensive workstation family designed to counter NT, and Ultra 60, an extension of Sun's popular Ultra line, for more powerful applications. Sun believes the new lines will help the company hold its own in the battle for position in medical imaging.

At the San Francisco rollout, Sun emphasized in particular the Darwin line, which the company claims offers the low-cost benefits of PCs but with the power, scalability, and reliability of a Unix workstation. In addition to Unix functions, the workstations can simultaneously run PC applications and Web and Java functions, according to the firm. The low-end Darwin family comes in Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 models, with pricing beginning at $2995.

Sun has targeted PACS and medical imaging as key markets for the new workstation lines. The Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 computers, both available now, should be especially attractive to PACS companies that have been tempted by NT, said Bruce Elder, healthcare industry manager.

"We have a very strong established market presence in medical imaging, and we're not just walking away from the market," Elder said. "We think we can add a better value proposition, and save you the hassle of trying to change your entire installed base over to Windows NT."

The entry-level Ultra 5 could function as a standard clinical review station, such as in ICU/CCU or ER environments, Elder said. It features a 270-MHz UltraSPARC- IIi RISC processor, 256 KB of external cache, a 4.3-GB hard drive, 64 MB of memory (upgradeable to 512 MB), a 1.44-MB floppy drive, and three PCI I/O slots for additional graphics needs.

In contrast, Ultra 10, when equipped with a high-resolution card from a manufacturer such as Dome Imaging or Tech-Source, could serve as a diagnostic workstation, Elder said. Ultra 10 features a 300-MHz UltraSPARC-IIi processor, 512 KB of external cache, 64 MB of memory (expandable to 1 GB), a 4.3-GB hard drive, and a 1.44-MB floppy drive. Beginning in price at $6395, the workstation employs the company's Creator graphics tool, as well as four PCI slots.

Sun also introduced Ultra 60, a high-end workstation suitable for medical imaging applications such as 3-D modeling in image-guided surgery, Elder said. Although not expected to have as much application in PACS, Ultra 60 can be equipped with either one or two 300-MHz UltraSPARC-II processors. It also supports a 64-bit, 66-MHz PCI I/O bus, according to the company. Prices for Ultra 60 begin at $13,295, while a fully configured system costs $27,760.

A number of PACS vendors, including Agfa and GE Medical Systems, have participated in the beta testing of the new workstations and reported positive experiences, Elder said. While Sun would not disclose the vendors that have committed to deploying the Darwin and Ultra 60 workstations, commitments have been secured, Elder said. Sun expects OEM clients to bring the workstations to market by the end of the year.

The workstation introductions come at a crucial time for Sun. With the growing popularity of Windows NT-based systems, Unix-based PACS workstations overall have taken a hit. While Sun believes that it has held its overall PACS workstation market share steady in the last year due to a strengthening in position relative to other Unix-based PACS workstation providers, the vendor needed to address the surging popularity of NT.

The new introductions should make for interesting competition with NT-based workstations. The low cost of the Darwin line, in particular, as well as its ability to run a wide variety of applications, should position it as a strong alternative to NT as the market moves toward integrated enterprise-wide information systems.

Sun also hopes to leverage its workstation launches with more sales in its strong healthcare server business, which represents one of Sun's fastest growing businesses. Sun planned to follow up the workstation introductions with new archiving offerings at the end of January.

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