Sun looks to distinguish chips with multiple cores

Sun Microsystems Inc. is making the move to multicore chips in a big way, promising users a new breed of processor that appears to differ from anything discussed thus far by rivals such IBM Corp. and Intel Corp.

The company detailed its processor plans during the Sun financial analyst conference in San Francisco this week and showed off new designs for its core UltraSPARC line as well as a new class of chip that combines multiple processor cores on a single piece of silicon. This latest deluge of information on its technology came as a response to criticism from analysts and competitors that Sun’s processors have started to lag in performance. To address those criticisms Sun decided to provide more details on its future plans, including the multicore chips, which it thinks will pose a large challenge to IBM and Intel.

“We’ve read your reports indicating that Intel has won, that commodity has won and SPARC is no longer relevant,” David Yen, executive vice-president in Sun’s processor and network products group, told financial analysts during a presentation at the conference. “At first we did not understand where this was coming from…Then we realized it’s because you don’t see what we see.”

Sun faces some tough competition in the world of 64-bit computing, as it does battle against IBM’s Power4 processor and Intel’s Itanium chip. All three companies are chasing a lucrative part of the server market that uses 64-bit chips to power systems running databases, business software and scientific computing programs. While Sun leads in market share, analysts have praised the performance of IBM’s Power4 chip and see Intel as an oncoming threat.

To address the competition facing its high-end servers, Sun plans to release its first UltraSPARC IV processor later this year and will include in it a pair of new technologies designed to boost performance, Yen said.

The UltraSPARC IV will be the first in its line to include two processor cores on a single chip and to support multithreaded software. Like IBM, Sun has been able to shrink the size of its chips to the point where it can place two processor cores in the same space where before it had only one. These processor cores will then be able to handle multiple software threads, or sequences of software instructions being executed by the processor.

This pairing of multiple cores and multithreading will help Sun’s servers do more than double the work of current systems, according to Sun. In particular, users should see better performance from applications that have been written to take advantage of the multithreading technology, the company said. Sun has long made SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) servers that spread software loads across numerous processors and is looking for the multicore chips to provide a miniature version of such systems.

Sun plans to follow the UltraSPARC IV chip with its dual-core UltraSPARC V chip in 2005, Yen said.

Sun also said it plans to ship the long awaited UltraSPARC IIIi processor for low-end and midrange systems at 1.06GHz, although Yen declined to provide a release date. He additionally touted a 1.75GHz version of the chip that Sun has running in demonstration systems.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun plans to branch off from its competitors with a different type of processor, its H-Series line, that will fit into lower end servers. The H-Series products will place tens of processor cores on a single chip in a move that extends Sun’s ability to handle multi-threaded applications.

The first H-series product – code-named Gemini – will use two UltraSPARC II cores on a single chip and be out in 2005, Yen said. This will be followed later in the year by a more “radical” design code-named Niagara that could put as many as eight cores on a chip. These low-cost, low power processors will act almost like an “SMP on a chip,” Yen said.

Sun sees the processors being highly effective in splitting up software threads and churning through Web server-types of applications that run on blade servers. The chips should also work well with Java-based applications, which are well suited for multi-threading technologies, Yen said.

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