Sun has two surprises in store for users

Sun Microsystems Inc. plans to announce two new technologies in the coming weeks, one of which will help it catch up to rivals IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., and another that could help it take a step past the competition.

Greg Papadopoulos, executive vice-president and chief technology officer at Sun, shed some light on two projects this month, during a meeting with reporters at its Burlington, Mass., offices. Papadopoulos said the company is working on a project code-named Kevlar that will give Sun users a logical partitioning technology similar to that of IBM and HP. Sun is also expected to show one of its new multicore chip designs for low-end and midrange servers this month.

Up to this point, Sun has offered a form of physical or hardware-based partitioning for its servers that limited the number of partitions users could create for running multiple operating systems and applications on the same server. By contrast, IBM and HP offer what is known as logical partitioning on their Unix systems, giving customers some more flexibility for carving up systems, according to analysts.

Sun plans to offer logical partitions to its users via the Kevlar project, Papadopoulos said.

“This is well on its way to product release,” he told reporters.

One analyst suspects that the Kevlar technology would be a “hardened form” of the containers Sun currently offers with its Solaris operating system. Users can run applications within a container to try to separate them from other software, thus reducing the impact of one application crashing.

“These are not partitions in the way anybody else on the planet uses the term,” said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc., in Nashua, N.H. “But in the Solaris 10 timeframe, Sun is going to harden the boundaries between those containers to keep software failures from propagating from one group to another, which is after all what you are trying to accomplish with partitions. Sun has not said a whole lot about how they will achieve this Kevlar-like technology.”

Sun was once seen as the leader in partitioning technology on Unix servers, as it provided users with tools for changing processing power, bandwidth and memory between these divisions ahead of the competition. However, its competitors charged forward with similar tools on logical partitions, which gave users a new option for consolidating applications on a single Unix system.

Sun is again moving in a different direction from its rivals with a class of multicore processors that create a miniaturized SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) system on a single chip. The company gained this technology through its acquisition of Afara WebSystems Inc. last year.

At its analyst conference in San Francisco in March, Papadopoulos will provide details on one of these multicore designs.

“What you will see is something equivalent to a 32-way SMP on a chip,” he said.

IBM was the first company to roll out a chip that placed two processor cores on a single piece of silicon, which essentially gives one physical chip the same performance as two. A dual-core approach means chip makers can pack more processing power in a given space while still giving both cores quick access to memory. Sun and HP both plan to release their own dual-core chips later this year, and Intel will come on board with a dual-core Itanium chip in 2005.

However, Sun also plans to release a line of products that puts tens of processor cores on a single chip. The one Papadopoulos will describe is an example of this. These chips would be less powerful but also less expensive than their standard UltraSPARC processors and potentially better able to divide up some types of software workloads, according to the company.

Illuminata’s Haff expects the 32-way SMP on chip to be more a technology demonstration than a readily available product.

In the past, Sun has described putting eight cores on one chip in its first iteration of the Afara technology.