Sun ready to Rock without UltraSparc V

Sun Microsystems Inc. has decided to drop the next-generation UltraSparc V from its road map in favour of its recently disclosed Rock processor, signaling a shift in the strategic direction of the company’s processor division.

A Sun spokesperson confirmed that as part of Sun’s reorganization announcement last week, the UltraSparc V and the Gemini processor will no longer be brought to market. UltraSparc V was the planned successor to the UltraSparc IV, a dual-core processor designed for high-end servers. Gemini was expected to be the first in a new series of dual-core processors for lower-end servers.

But as a result of Sun’s poor financial situation, the Santa Clara, Calif., needs to focus its research and development resources on more promising projects, said Sabrina Guttman, a Sun spokesperson. The decision was first reported by The Register.

Last week, Sun announced it would lay off 3,300 workers amid a larger announcement related to the resolution of its legal disputes with Microsoft Corp. over Java technology. The company also said it expects to lose between US$750 million and US$810 million in the upcoming quarter.

Sun’s long-term strategy for the next-generation of its servers will now center around Rock, unveiled at an analyst meeting in February. Rock and Niagra are multicore processors designed to process multiple software threads, in what Sun calls throughput computing. Niagra is expected in 2005 or 2006, and will work best in blade servers and networking equipment.

Rock is expected to be one of the highest performing server chips for both single-threaded applications and multithreaded applications when it is released, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif.

This would combine the single-threaded approach of the UltraSparc product line with the multithreaded architecture of the Niagra processor, said Gordon Haff, senior analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H.

“Sun has made it quite clear that they believe throughput computing is the future, and nobody disagrees with that as a fundamental presence of future chip design,” Haff said.

However, that future won’t arrive any time soon. Sun has not given a date for Rock’s arrival, but analysts expect Sun to soldier on for at least two to three years with the recently released UltraSparc IV as Sun’s flagship processor for its high-end servers before Rock is ready for release. The UltraSparc V was expected to provide a stop-gap solution for customers waiting for the improved performance of Rock but who required something more than the UltraSparc IV.

Sun will make improvements to the UltraSparc IV over the next few years, and plans to shift engineers from the UltraSparc V project to the Rock and Niagra projects in hopes of speeding up the chips’ development, Guttman said.

Given Sun’s financial situation, the move isn’t shocking, but still comes as a surprise, analysts said. Sun has spent a great deal of money developing UltraSparc V to this point, and now it won’t see any return on that investment, Brookwood said.

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