Shine or fall, Sun’s Niagara launch set

Cautious anticipation appears to be the dominant mood as Sun prepares to unveil systems based on its massively multi-core, multithreaded UltraSparcT1 processor, code-named Niagara.

The chip has eight processor cores, each of which is able to perform four independent processing tasks, or threads, at the same time.

Early this week Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc. is expected to announce the first products in its Niagara server line. According to the company, the units will consume about half the power of Xeon- or Opteron-based systems, while handling as many as 32 individual software instructions per processor.

This compelling combination of low-power consumption and high-processing capabilities has at least one major Canadian Sun customer quite enthused.

“The excitement I feel is because this is the first real chip that has all of the technology pieces Sun has been talking about: the large number of cores on a chip, and the multiple threading per core,” said Ken Edgecomb, executive director of High Performance Computing Virtual Laboratory (HPCVL), a consortium of five Ontario universities that provide researchers with the resources they need to conduct innovative research in a broad spectrum of disciplines.

HPCVL’s current membership includes Carleton University, Queen’s University, The Royal Military College of Canada, the University of Ottawa, and Ryerson University.

For Edgecomb, the Niagara chip’s significance extends beyond the tremendous boost in computing power it is expected to deliver. “It’s not just a matter of getting people’s work turned around and making them more productive; it also has to do with lowering the total cost of ownership of computing equipment.”

The latter feature is vitally important to Edgecomb as he spearheads the construction of HPCVL’s new computing centre located a couple of kilometers away from the Queen’s University campus in Kingston. The cost of electricity, he said, was a huge factor when planning the construction. “We had to factor in what it would cost over a period of 5-7 years, so people could budget.”

The new Niagara processor runs as fast as 1.2 GHz, yet consumes just 70 watts of power, a bit more than an average household light bulb. Today’s processors average about 100 watts or more, according to industry experts.

Despite singing its paeans, however, Edgecomb said the Niagara processor will not be used by HPCVL for production work (in its production/calculation environment). “We may use it for data shipping/ data handling types of processes, and also…to serve our Web site and other applications of similar nature.” He characterized the possible use of Niagara in these areas as “part of the testing phase of our relationship with Sun.”

Instead the consortium will be deploying systems based on the Sun UltraSparc-IV Plus processor, which represents the first generation of Sun’s chip multi-threading technology. (Niagara – geared towards network-facing apps – represents the second generation. The third generation of chip multi-threading – the data-facing Rock family – is expected to be rolled out in the 2007-08 time frame).

Over the course of the next year, HPCVL will upgrade its server systems at various universities (Queen’s, Ottawa, and Carlton) to the Sun Fire 25000 featuring the multi-core UltraSparc-IV Plus chips. In 2007, Edgecomb said, the consortium will move to the second phase of its installation.

“That’s where the next-generation chip will come in,” he said, without elaboration. “That’s future technology that I’m not permitted to talk about.”

However, he said, the Niagara launch is very important because it exemplifies the direction that Sun is moving in the market.

The multi-core chip technology that Sun is making available, Edgecomb said, can provide the computing power required for research in a range of areas from photonics and drug design to computational fluid dynamics, mechanical engineering and space engineering.

For instance, he said, system upgrades being planned at various HPCVL centres are expected to dramatically speed up the time it takes to do certain tasks. “Many calculations that currently take about three months would accomplished in around one month. And that’s just assuming the researchers are trying to do the calculations the same way they are doing it now.”

He said the new technology that allows researchers to (say) use 40 CPU cores instead of 20 – would probably produce a 50 per cent speed boost just based on the fact that there’s extra capacity.

“Niagara is hitting the market at a good time. The concerns it addresses, such as power efficiency, are high on a lot of IT managers’ minds today,” says Gordon Haff, an analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based research firm Illuminata Inc.

“We’ll have to see how it stacks up on both benchmarks and real-world application performance – but if it really does offer, say, double or better Xeon performance that should be enough to grab the attention of anyone with a large Linux server farm,” he said.

With files from Jennifer Mears, Network World (US)

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