Sun has a lot riding on UltraSPARC T1 chip

Sun says servers built on its long-awaited Niagara processor, a multicore, multithreaded chip designed to better handle the simultaneous requests that come with Web-based applications, such as security processing, should ship by year-end.

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The servers, which will consume about half the power of Xeon- or Opteron-based systems, may be what Sun needs to jump-start its scalable-processor architecture business, analysts say. On Monday the company is expected to introduce the UltraSPARC T1, a chip Sun executives say can handle multiple tasks and increase throughput without the power demands and heat output of today's processors. The UltraSPARC T1 has eight cores on a single piece of silicon. Each core can simultaneously handle four individual threads - software instructions that must be processed - letting the chip carry out more tasks and make more efficient use of memory at a lower clock speed.

The processor, which will run as fast as 1.2 GHz, will consume about 70 watts of power, a tad more than an average household light bulb and less than the 100 watts or more that most processors consume today, Sun executives say.

Sun isn't releasing pricing, but analysts say the servers are expected to be priced similarly to well-configured Xeon- or Opteron-based systems - about $5,000. The move comes at a good time for the server maker, which has been struggling to regain its footing since the dot-com bust forced cost-conscious buyers to move away from pricey SPARC-based servers to lower-cost standards-based systems.

"I continue to view this as probably the most important development in terms of what Sun has done with SPARC since the introduction of the original SPARC back in 1987," says Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. "The fact that this chip is coming along at a time when many IT managers are pulling out their hair trying to figure out how they're going to increase their workload capacity without increasing their power or floor-space requirements in their data centers is very good news [for Sun]."

Rising power demands have pushed the indstry to move from cranking up clock speed to improving system performance. Chipmakers are putting multiple cores on a single piece of silicon to enable more work to be done by less-power-hungry processors.

IBM has long had a dual-core Power processor and introduced a quad-core Power5+ last month. HP rolled out its dual-core PA-RISC chip last year. Intel and AMD both introduced dual-core x86 chips in the last few months.

Sun's Niagara processorSun made its first move into the multicore arena last year, when it introduced systems based on UltraSPARC IV, a dual-core, dual-threaded processor. With UltraSPARC T1, Sun is taking a giant step forward in enhancing computing throughput, analysts say. The architecture, which is a departure from previous SPARC designs, is aimed at high-transaction Web workloads where multiple tasks need to be handled concurrently.

With typical processors, when there is a cache miss or stall, the pipeline has to wait, but with the multithreaded design the processor can perform more efficiently, says Jeff O'Neal, director of engineering in Sun's scalable systems group.

"Each core is managing four threads. So if one thread stalls and has to go to memory, then you have three of the threads continuing to share the pipeline," he says. "The idea is to keep the pipeline in that core busy all the time. It's a fundamental shift in thinking."

With UltraSPARC T1, the processor pipeline is active about 85% of the time, compared to 15% to 20% for an average chip, O'Neal says. In addition, Sun claims that end users beta testing the systems have been able to reduce their hardware requirements by 60%, while doubling performance.

W. L. Gore & Associates, best known for its Gore-tex fabric, runs UltraSPARC IV-based systems today, but is keeping a close eye on Niagara. Richard Sun, network systems engineer at W. L. Gore in Newark, Del., says he is definitely interested in the technology, but will be watching how software vendors take advantage of the new architecture.

"Assuming software vendors keep up and can truly utilize this architecture, it'll definitely be a good step in resource consolidation and centralization," he says. "The problem we've found in going to dual-core boxes is that some software doesn't appear to utilize this well."

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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