Sun Preps Advanced CPUs

Sun is getting ready to field some disruptive technology in the form of its next-generation Niagara and Rock processors. Though both are high-end chips, the company paradoxically believes they may end up having more of an impact at the low end of the market, where clusters of commodity x86 systems are cobbled together to handle network-intensive tasks, such as Web services and e-commerce applications.

The two CPUs will be the first of what Sun is calling its "throughput computing" processors. "People used to always want to find the fastest computer to run one single job," says David Yen, the 16-year Sun veteran and executive vice president who heads up the group that makes Sun's UltraSparc-based systems. "Now, CIOs are looking for a way to handle high capacity. Guaranteeing a 200-millisecond response time to a mouse click isn't that big a deal, but guaranteeing the same response time when 10,000 mice all get clicked at the same time is a real challenge."

That thinking yielded a design imperative to pursue a multiple-core, multiple-thread approach. The result: Niagara, an advanced chip that contains eight 64-bit UltraSparc cores and dissipates 60 W of power--a fraction of the 100 W or so consumed by today's dual-core UltraSparc IV. It is also likely beneath the power figure expected from dual-core processors due out of Intel and AMD this year.

Analyst Kevin Krewell, who tracks the semiconductor industry as editor of the Microprocessor Report, is impressed. "It's a more aggressive approach to multicore than any of its competitors have tried," Krewell says. "To pack eight cores on one die is a challenging design because the burden falls on the operating system to manage all these cores and threads."

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Sun has already manufactured the first silicon of Niagara. The initial version will include an on-board Ethernet controller and built-in memory controller. Subsequent releases will have 10-Gigabit Ethernet and even cryptologic capability built into the chip.

Where will Niagara see service? "If you are just looking for a Xeon replacement, this is not it," Yen explains. "This is optimized for network-intensive jobs." For apps more oriented toward the single user, Sun is creating a second processor called Rock. It's also multicore, but won't place as much emphasis on the network interface as does Niagara.

Despite its rapid progress, Sun won't ship the first of its new CPUs until it rolls out Niagara in 2006. Yen says the year-long interval until the device comes to market will be used to bring Sun's partners up to speed. "There are a lot of expectations for this chip," Yen says. "Our desire is when we finally release this product, it better be a big success."

Brian Upper, a technical sales manager at Sysix, an Oak Brook, Ill., reseller that represents both Sun and IBM, says that Sun briefed him and other VARs on the technology at a recent data center and storage summit. Right now, Upper thinks the processor is still a bit far afield for most VARs. "When something is two quarters away, that's when we start looking at it," he says. "Even then, we don't want to do anything that'll push customer sales out six months."

He also thinks the distinction between the two processors is important. "The Niagara chip is targeting the network-facing side," he says, noting that it will play in the space where 1U and 2U rack-mounted servers and blades see service. "Niagara is not the general-purpose chip. That would be Rock. When Rock comes out, my guess is there will be a whole new system developed around it."