Sun adds Rock to its UltraSparc roadmap

Sun Microsystems Inc. shed some more light on its UltraSparc roadmap Wednesday, outlining plans for two new processor families that will use multithreading techniques to boost the performance of Sun’s servers.

The chip families, dubbed Niagara and Rock, will both cram several processor cores on a single piece of silicon, allowing them to execute potentially dozens of threads — or sets of computing instructions — simultaneously, Sun officials said during a conference for analysts in San Francisco.

Niagara, which Sun has discussed briefly before, will be geared towards network-intensive applications, said David Yen, executive vice-president of Sun’s processor and network products group. It is expected to be used in Sun’s blade servers, where it could boost performance by as much as 15 times compared with Sun’s UltraSparc III, according to Sun.

Chips in the Rock family, which will come after Niagara, will use their multithreading capabilities to handle a variety of tasks more quickly including computation — for running a databases and ERP systems, for example — and other types of work such as encryption, Yen said.

He didn’t offer a timetable for delivering the chips, but the Niagara family is due some time in 2005 or 2006, according to information on Sun’s Web site.

Yen argued that today’s processors won’t be able to keep pace with future volumes of network traffic, especially as more devices become network-enabled. If radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are deployed widely, for example, organizations will be overwhelmed by the volumes of traffic flooding into their data centres, he said.

The Niagara family will address the problem by dedicating some of its threads to processing network packets, he said. Solaris 10, an upgrade to Sun’s operating system due later this year, will have the ability to recognize different packet types and direct them to the appropriate thread for processing, he said.

“We are not getting into the network processor business. It’s a general-purpose, multithreaded processor. We are simply taking advantage of the existence of multiple hardware threads to sort out the requirements of different types of tasks. We can even dedicate extra silicon to do some computing jobs like cryptography,” Yen said.

Sun’s UltraSparc competes primarily with IBM Corp.’s Power 4 processor and Intel Corp.’s Itanium and Xeon chips. Sun said the forthcoming processors will provide evidence that its research and development spending is paying off. It will also be hoping that they help boost its revenues, which were flat last year after two years of decline.

Niagara and Rock will be Sun’s second and third generations of multicore processors, respectively.

The first generation includes the UltraSparc 4, which puts two UltraSparc III cores on one piece of silicon. Sun announced this week that the chip will be available in servers next month, and said it offers about twice the performance of the UltraSparc III.

“UltraSparc 4 and UltraSparc V represent the first generation of chip multithreading technology. It covers the sweet spot of today’s requirements,” Yen said. “Our second-generation multithreaded chip, Niagara, is network-facing and focussed on handling tomorrow’s throughput requirements. Beyond Niagara we will introduce the third generation of chip multithreading — the data-facing Rock family. The intent there is to try to get the best of both worlds.”

On Tuesday, Scott McNealy, Sun’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, held aloft on stage the follow-on to the UltraSparc 4, which goes by the code name Panther, or UltraSparc 4-Plus. Yen said Wednesday that Sun has quadrupled the size of the chip’s Level 2 memory cache to increase performance.

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