Sun could double processor count in servers

Sun Microsystems Inc. is likely to unveil new processors as early as next year that would allow customers essentially to double the number of processors in their existing systems without incurring any downtime.

Sun, in Santa Clara, Calif., will ship its next-generation UltraSPARC IV chips with two processor cores on the same piece of silicon, according to internal roadmaps obtained by IDG News Service. This technique, already employed by rival IBM Corp., would provide a significant boost to overall server performance that would be readily available to Sun customers. The company’s Uniboard technology allows users to remove and replace processors in a current server chassis without shutting the machine down. [Please see Sun revs up Sun Fire.] This means customers essentially could double the number of processors in a server that currently runs on UltraSPARC III chips.

“They will get almost two times the performance of a single processor by putting two cores on the same die,” said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with the consulting company Insight 64, in Saratoga, Calif. “It instantly doubles the number of CPUs (central processing units) in a system and will provide a great deal of benefit for their customers.”

In multiple-core processors, there is some sharing of resources, such as external bus or cache between the two cores, which would keep a new processor from acting exactly like two separate chips, Brookwood said. However, it still would come close to doubling performance, he added.

Sun officials would not commit to the dual-core plan during a Wednesday conference call about its chip technology, but one executive said that such a move “could be imagined.”

“Our systems are field upgradeable to a dual-core chip,” said Shahin Khan, chief competitive officer and vice-president of computer systems at Sun, during the news conference. “A customer could buy a 24-way system from Sun today and upgrade dynamically while applications are still running to a chip that might have multiple cores on it. That’s investment protection.”

IBM has led the way among the major Unix server vendors by shipping systems with its multi-core Power4 processor. Hewlett-Packard Co. had said it also plans to adopt this type of architecture in the next generation of its PA-RISC processors.

Sun, however, claims that its Uniboard technology makes it unique in the industry as it allows customers to upgrade existing systems. In Sun systems with multiple processor boards, users can remove one board while the server is still running and install a new board with faster CPUs. Sun customers also can operate servers that run on CPUs of various speeds.

The internal Sun roadmaps show the vendor rolling out UltraSPARC IV processors in the early part of next year that have two cores per chip. The roadmap then shows UltraSPARC V chips arriving in 2006 that would have four cores per chip.

An analyst note issued last week by Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. said Sun is even working on technology that would allow for eight cores per chip, although a shipping version of these processors would appear to be quite far off.

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