Sun Founders Hail SPARC Chip's 25 Years as Potent Computer Platform

 
 
By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2012-11-05
 
 
 

Sign of the Times

Sun Microsystems, having no previous experience in designing and developing a microprocessor, launched its first SPARC chip in 1987. Twenty-five years later, it is still the No. 1 chip used in Unix systems worldwide and remains a multibillion dollar business for Oracle.

Sign of the Times

Panel of Experts

The principals at the "SPARC at 25" event are detailed in the intro to this slide show. A full-house audience listened as they reminisced about the beginnings of the risky project and described how the development has continued for a quarter century. Left to right: David Patterson; Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun; Bernie LaCroute; Anant Agrawal; Andy Bechtolsheim, a co-founder of Sun; Rick Hetherington, and David House, chairman of Brocade and moderator of the discussion. The two other Sun co-founders, Vinod Khosla and Scott McNealy, also were represented: Khosla in person and McNealy via video.

Panel of Experts

Teacher and Student

David Patterson (left) was a computer science teacher at UC Berkeley in the 1970s when one of his prize graduate students, Bill Joy (second from left),  decided he wanted to venture off and design an operating system that had more capabilities than current standards at the time. That OS became BSD/Unix, the basis for Solaris and later the OS for SPARC. Joy singlehandedly started the BSD distributions in 1977, and by his second iteration he had contributions from other graduate students. Next to Joy is Anant Agrawal, a venture consultant and former Sun executive and Bernie Lacroute, partner emeritus at Kleiner Perkins and a former Sun executive.

Teacher and Student

MicroSPARC IIep, 1991

MicroSPARC (code-named Tsunami) implemented the SPARC V8 instruction set architecture (ISA) developed at Sun. It was a low-end microprocessor intended for smaller workstations and embedded systems. The microprocessor contained 800,000 transistors. There were two derivatives of the microSPARC: the microSPARC-II and microSPARC-IIep, which was a 100MHz microSPARC-II with an integrated PCI controller for embedded systems. It was developed and fabricated by LSI Logic for Sun, which used it in the JavaStation Network Computer. Hard to believe, but about 1 million computers were connected to the nascent Internet in 1991.

MicroSPARC IIep, 1991

SuperSPARC I, 1992

The SuperSPARC ran the SPARC V8 instruction set architecture. Both 33MHz and 40MHz versions were introduced in 1992. The SuperSPARC contained 3.1 million transistors. It was fabricated by Texas Instruments at Miho, Japan, in a 0.8-micrometer BiCMOS process.

SuperSPARC I, 1992

UltraSPARC III, 2001

The UltraSPARC III, code-named Cheetah, implemented the SPARC V9 instruction set architecture fabricated by Texas Instruments. It was introduced in 2001 and operated at 600MHz to 900MHz. It was succeeded by the UltraSPARC IV in 2004. Tagline for the marketing campaign was "Journey to the Center of the Dot."

UltraSPARC III, 2001

SPARC 4, 2011

SPARC T4 is the latest in-production chip produced by Oracle today—an eight-core microprocessor introduced in 2011. The processor offers high multithreaded performance (eight threads per core), as well as high single-threaded performance from the same chip. The chip is the first Sun/Oracle SPARC chip to use out-of-order integer execution units. It also incorporates one floating-point unit and one dedicated cryptographic unit per core. The cores use the 64-bit SPARC version 9 architecture.

SPARC 4, 2011

SPARC T5, 2012

The latest SPARC model is the T5, which is projected to be released late in 2012. The new T5 will leverage 16 per-thread speed enhanced T4 cores, similar to the quantity of cores in the T3. The T5 is projected to be manufactured with a 28-nanometer framework.

SPARC T5, 2012

SPARC Server, c.1997

Here is an example of an unhooded, fully loaded Sun Unix server, with a full complement of SPARC processors. These were the industry standard in the '90s, prior to the advent of equally powerful but less-expensive Intel x86 servers.

SPARC Server, c.1997

The Classic Sun Workstation, 1990

Sun made its reputation on designing, building and marketing these high-powered (for the time) workstations for high-end enterprise projects, including financial data, scientific, government, military and many other vertical industry applications. In those days, it was Sun versus Silicon Graphics Inc. for the mainstay of the connected workstation market. These workstations were priced at around $20,000 each. SGI eventually made some fatal market decisions, and the industry changed over to smaller, less-expensive x86 computers, hurting Sun's business in the long haul.

The Classic Sun Workstation, 1990

SPARC Wafers

These SPARC chip wafers that never made it to the finish line and into production are now a permanent part of IT history.

SPARC Wafers

Rock-Star Signature

A wrapped copy of a legacy Solaris/Unix OS disk, signed by lead developer Bill Joy, is reminiscent of a CD signed by a superstar musician.

Rock-Star Signature

Rocket Fuel