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Stephen Shankland

Staff Writer, CNET

SANTA CLARA, Calif.–Sun Microsystems said Wednesday it will pass a significant development milestone in 2005 for two follow-on models of the company’s forthcoming processor, code-named Niagara.

Those successors include a second-generation Niagara chip and the “Rock” processor, due to arrive in systems in 2008. Rock employs some of Niagara’s technology for running multiple jobs at once but is designed for more-demanding, higher-end tasks.

At the company’s annual meeting for analysts here, Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy said both chips are maturing. “We’ll be taping out Rock this year, as well as the second version of Niagara this year,” McNealy said. Tape-out is the stage at which chip engineers ship their design–recorded on magnetic tapes–to the chip factory for fabrication.

In the nearer term will be Niagara. David Yen, executive vice president of Sun’s scalable systems group, demonstrated a Niagara system here running a Java program on Solaris 10. Sun now is producing several Niagara test systems per week for internal testing, Yen said.

Sun is aggressively promoting servers using x86 processors, chiefly Advanced Micro Devices’ Opteron. But it also is working to ensure the Sparc lineage keeps a place alongside x86, IBM’s Power and Intel’s Itanium.

Sun has had some problems in its processor business. For example, in 2004 it canceled is much-delayed UltraSparc V processor, which had been inauspiciously code-named Millennium, and its UltraSparc III arrived years late. But Niagara seems to be going better, said Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report.

“The first silicon is working exceptionally well,” Krewell said.

Niagara servers are due to arrive in the first quarter of 2006, said Marc Tremblay, chief architect of Sun’s scalable systems group.

A new chip approach
Niagara will be the first major debut of a technology called chip multithreading (CMT), which is designed to let processors work more efficiently. With this approach, multiple computing engines called processor cores are combined on the same chip, and each core can juggle multiple instruction sequences called threads.

Today’s processors spend much of their time waiting to retrieve data from memory. When Sun chips run into that problem, a new thread takes over while the first waits for data. Niagara, with eight cores each able to run four threads, can run a total of 32 threads in parallel.

Today’s software will work on CMT chips, but must be optimized to work well, Yen said. “For example, internally in our system software, there are places where we may have limited the parallelism only to four simultaneous threads or eight,” he said. “Now, knowing that even one processor can support 32 simultaneous threads, certainly we’d like to further enhance the parallelism.”

“By the time we release the product, we will have real customer testimonials.”

–David Yen,
Sun VP

As expected, Yen said that Sun plans to let programmers use publicly available Niagara servers to help this optimization.

“Later in this year, probably in the summer time frame, we plan to build 40 or 50 additional machines connected to the network and provide a more public access to such platforms,” Yen said. “By the time we release the product, we will have real customer testimonials.”

Niagara is built with a manufacturing process that employs features as small as 90 nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Niagara II and Rock will be built with a 65-nanometer process, which permits more circuitry to be squeezed onto the same amount of silicon.

Sun inked a partnership with Fujitsu, the other major Sparc processor designer, to design joint systems called the Advanced Product Line, or APL, that will go on sale in 2006. The first such systems will be based on Niagara, but a second phase of the collaboration will use Fujitsu’s Olympus processor.

The Olympus systems will hold up to 64 processors, Yen said. The Olympus chip has two cores that each handle two threads.

Leaning on AMD
Hector Ruiz, Advanced Micro Devices’ chief executive, joined McNealy on Wednesday to tout the companies’ partnership. Sun now is the partner responsible for the most sales of Opteron chips, Ruiz said.

McNealy said Sun will aggressively promote AMD’s dual-core Opteron processors, which boosts computing power by combining two processing engines into one single slice of silicon. That chip is still on schedule to arrive this year, Ruiz said, but offered an optimistic footnote about the schedule.

“We’re doing all the engineering and development. We’ve seen it,” Ruiz said. “Officially, we intend to be launching it in the marketplace around the summertime. Sometimes things happen and you might do better.”

The AMD deal helped relieve pressures on Sun’s engineering budget, Yen said.

“If Sun doesn’t have an Opteron-based product, I very well may have to invest and develop a low-end, low-cost Sparc processor playing the same role as the Opteron or (Intel) Xeon,” Yen said.

More is coming from the AMD deal. Later this year, Sun plans to release high-end Opteron servers based on designs from Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim and to refresh midrange storage products with Opteron chips.