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Stephen Shankland

Staff Writer, CNET

Sun Microsystems is expected to spotlight its new Niagara processor at the company’s next quarterly announcement event, which is set for February, according to sources familiar with the plan.

The Niagara chip has eight processing engines, or cores, each capable of running four simultaneous instruction sequences, or threads. Though it lacks circuitry to maximize the speed with which a given thread will run, Sun expects the chip to be useful for replacing large numbers of lower-end servers.

At the quarterly event, Sun is expected to tout a program to let business partners and customers try out Niagara servers themselves, sources familiar with the plans said. Such testing will be important for software companies trying to optimize and qualify their products for the processor.

Sun declined to comment for this story.

Niagara is a crucial part of Sun’s attempt to keep the Sparc family of processors relevant in the face of widely used x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices and increasingly powerful Power processors from IBM. Another part of Sun’s strategy is a partnership with Fujitsu to jointly develop servers using its forthcoming Olympus processor.

Niagara systems will debut later than initially planned, however. Last year, Sun scheduled Niagara servers for 2005, but now the company is planning on 2006.

In the longer term, Sun is planning a second-generation Niagara processor and a higher-end cousin, which is code-named Rock and due out in 2008. And to cover its bases, Sun also is embracing AMD’s Opteron, touting it as a good foundation for Sun’s Solaris operating system.

Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy showed off a Niagara prototype at the company’s most recent quarterly event in November. And Sun President Jonathan Schwartz in September touted a Niagara server in his Web log.

Niagara was spawned at start-up Afara Websystems, which Sun acquired in 2002. Each processor core on the chip juggles four threads, switching from one to another when one is held up by slow communications with the computer’s main memory.

Sun is touting the processor as a solution to power consumption woes in corporate data centers. Each Niagara processor consumes 56 watts. By contrast, it’s not unusual for a high-end server chip to use between 80 watts and 120 watts.