At the companys quarterly event Tuesday in New York City, Chairman Scott McNealy introduced the OpenSPARC project. Sun will publish specifications for the chip—formerly code-named Niagara—including the design source, verification suite and simulation models.
In addition, Sun, based in Santa Clara, Calif., will publish the instruction set specification for UltraSPARC Architecture 2005 and a Solaris port, McNealy said.
The move follows other initiatives to open up chip designs, and is patterned on the open-source drive that brought the Linux operating system to the computing world.
"If it works in software, why wouldnt it work for processors?" McNealy asked during a question-and-answer session with reporters and analysts following the two-hour event.
More details of the program will be released later, but McNealy said the hope is that greater innovation around the processor will help drive adoption and will add to the research and development that Sun engineers already are conducting.
Sun already has shown the ability to bring in key technologies through acquisitions—indeed, the groundwork for the T1 chip was developed by another company, Afara Websystems Inc., which Sun bought in 2002. McNealy said he envisioned a future where companies will be created to develop technologies around UltraSPARC T1, and then be acquired by Sun.
Sun is one of a handful of organizations that have looked to open-source communities to try to fuel processor design. SPARC International is maintained by an independent body and allows anyone to download specifications and use them to design a chip. That said, it only provides technical support to licensees, who are the only ones who can brand their chips as SPARC-compliant.
McNealy said Fujitsu Ltd.s SPARC64 technology is an example of that program working. However, he said, with the new UltraSPARC T1, Sun wants to drive greater innovation by opening up the specs even more.
Its similar to Power.org, created by IBM of Armonk, N.Y., to generate innovation around its Power architecture. IBMs goal was to bring Power to a wide variety of devices, from the largest servers to the smallest handheld devices. The organization counts as members almost 30 companies and educational institutions, as well as thousands of individual developers, according to IBM officials.
IBM also is looking to open-source Cell, the chip architecture it designed with Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp.
In addition, there is OpenCores.org, a clearinghouse for processor core designs. According to officials, the site hosts about 1,700 chip developers.
The OpenSPARC project also follows on Suns decision to open-source the Solaris operating system.
Sun, which until the past couple of years has stuck by its SPARC/Solaris architecture, has been battered by the growing popularity of x86 systems based on processors from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.
The company has since been undergoing a radical transformation, rolling out a platform of Sun Fire systems based on AMDs Opteron processors and partnering with Fujitsu to create a new family of servers—the Advanced Product Line, based on the SPARC64 chip and due to be launched in mid-2006.
The UltraSPARC T1 is the most aggressive step in Suns Throughput Computing strategy. The chip holds up to eight cores, which in turn can run four threads simultaneously. In addition, its power envelope is at 70 watts, lower than similar single-core processors from Intel and others.
Sun already is working on Niagara II, which will roll out in 2007, and "Rock," a processor with fewer cores that is due out in 2008.
Sun officials said they are hoping that the new server directions will help fuel a rebirth for the company. In the third quarter, according to research firm IDC, Sun saw its revenue drop 7.6 percent, while competitors like Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM all saw revenue jump.
In response to a question from a reporter, McNealy said he was not concerned about one of Suns server lines taking business from another.
"It all depends on your workload or Web load," he said. "And as long as we get the order, I dont think weve cannibalized anything."