User benefits of new Sun chips may be slow to arrive

Sun Microsystems Inc.’s plans to develop a new generation of performance-enhancing microprocessors are aimed at demonstrating the company’s technology prowess amid an overall slowing of its business, analysts said. But it will be a while before users begin to see any of the benefits promised by the new technology. And even then not all classes of applications will benefit from Sun’s approach.

In a conference call for financial analysts last week, Sun executives outlined the company’s plan to develop a new generation of chip multithreading (CMT) processors, designed to deliver substantially better performance than existing technologies.

The chips will feature multiple processor cores integrated on a single silicon die, with each core being able to process multiple tasks or threads at the same time. The approach exponentially increases the amount of data that can be processed in a given period of time, boosting application performance, according to Sun.

Sun’s focus on improved processor throughput, instead of clock speed alone, is similar to efforts adopted by IBM, Intel Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., analysts said.

IBM’s Power4 chips already feature a dual-core design, and the company recently announced plans to deliver Power5 chips next year that feature a simultaneous multithreading capability similar to the one described by Sun. Both HP and Intel, meanwhile, are working on dual-core chip designs. HP is slated to deliver its product next year, while Intel’s Montecito chip will ship in 2005.

Sun’s processors are slightly different in that they appear to support more processor cores and will execute more tasks simultaneously, said Rich Partridge, an analyst at D.H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, N.Y.

It’s unclear if existing compute-intensive, high-end commercial applications will benefit much from Sun’s CMT chips, Partridge said. He expects to see CMT make more of an impression at the lower end, where the ability to execute multiple tasks simultaneously is more important than raw speed.

“Sun portrayed this as a new and exciting solution, but it is not for everything. It is for applications that are highly parallel in nature, such as the Web-facing tier,” Partridge said.

Many high-end applications benefit from existing single- and dual-core approaches, where clock speed is a crucial factor, analysts said. As a result, Sun’s CMT processors “may well be an architecture that performs well for certain types of applications but not for all,” said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H.