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DARPA work is shaping Sun’s future

Aug 20, 20032 mins
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DARPA work is shaping Sun’s future

By Robert McMillan

IDG News Service, 08/18/03

A desktop-size supercomputer, new types of computer memory systems, and easier-to-build microprocessors will someday be reality if research being conducted by Sun’s Sun Labs pans out, according to the head of the company’s applied research division.

Though a desktop-size supercomputer may be little more than a dream at this point, Sun is working on some technologies that could help bring that project to fruition, thanks in part to a $50 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that the Santa Clara, Calif., company was awarded last month, Sun Labs Director Jim Mitchell said in an interview.

Sun was one of three companies given three-year contracts to build a prototype high-end computer system for a variety of DARPA-specified areas of use, including weather prediction, biotechnology and cryptanalysis.

IBM and Cray were also selected to build prototypes. In three years, DARPA will select one of the three companies to actually build the computer system now in the prototype stage. But whether or not Sun receives the next contract, the research being done by its lab teams will have an impact on Sun’s product lines, particularly in the areas of system packaging, heat management, power management, and asynchronous design, Mitchell said.

Of the three, heat management is by far the toughest problem, Mitchell said. “The big surprise to me about the high-performance stuff is you spend all your time worrying about heat.”

Some of the DARPA work on software development is making its way into Sun’s compilers, runtime libraries and development tools, Mitchell said, and at next month’s IEEE Custom Integrated Circuits Conference in San Jose, Sun will unveil new research into how asynchronous design principles can be applied to a computer’s memory system to improve performance and reduce the cost of computing.

Mitchell declined to comment on specifics of the announcement, but Sun Lab engineer Ivan Sutherland, who leads Sun’s asynchronous design project, is scheduled as one of the presenters of a talk on “Proximity Design” at the conference.

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