Sparcs Fly as Sun Touts New Chip

Touting its future UltraSparc chips, Sun took aim at Intel and IBM for portraying their chips as superior products.

Sun Microsystems Inc. today outlined its 64-bit processor roadmap from todays 900MHz UltraSparc III to a future 3GHz UltraSparc V, and belittled efforts by rivals Intel Corp. and IBM to portray their chips as superior products.

In particular, Sun took aim at Intel, which has been heavily promoting its 1GHz Itanium 2 chip, due this summer, as offering faster performance at a lower cost than Suns UltraSparc III-based servers.

In large part, Sun sought to undermine competitors promotional efforts by discounting benchmarks used to compare processors as outdated and inaccurate, as well as what it contends is a misleading focus on chip clock speed rather than system performance.

While the processor is the "soul of the system," Sun executive David Yen said today, it alone doesnt determine system performance.

"It takes the processor … it takes the interconnect, the memory subsystem, the operating system and the software stock above the operating system," said Yen, Suns vice president and general manager, in a briefing for reporters at Suns San Franciscos offices today. "Its how you integrate this whole thing together."

Nevertheless, while Sun sought to downplay the importance of processor speed, the roadmap it displayed for future UltraSparc chips highlighted the frequency of each product – a contradiction that Yen admitted he had misgivings about.

"While we have emphasized over and over that the CPU frequency is not everything -- in fact, its getting to the point where its becoming a marketing gimmick -- but for traditional reasons we are using frequency as the identifier here," Yen said.

The presentation included no timeline for the release of the chips, and focused instead on how the products will address low- to high-end markets.

On the high-end, Sun is set to soon release a 1GHz UltraSparc III, with the architecture eventually being scaled up to 1.2GHz. According to sources, Sun next year will release the UltraSparc IV, which the company revealed today will be introduced at 1.2GHz and will ultimately scale up to 2GHz.

In 2005, according to sources, Sun will release the UltraSparc V, which will feature a new core architecture. The company has particularly high hopes for the UltraSparc V, which it revealed today will be introduced at 1.8GHz and scale up to 3GHz.

"We strongly feel that UltraSparc V has an architecture … that is superior to the Intel Itanium … and the IBM Power," Yen said.

In large part, Sun has focused its marketing efforts on touting the benefits of its highly integrated hardware and software solutions. For example, in contrast to Intel-based systems, where computer makers meld together a variety of hardware and software components from different vendors, Sun designs much of the hardware platform in unison with developing the proprietary Solaris OS that runs on it.

Such comprehensive control over the system components, Sun contends, enables it to produce more stable and higher performance systems.

But Suns rivals often target another factor when comparing systems--price. Based on initial purchase costs, Suns systems generally cost about 10 to 20 percent more than comparable offerings from Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM, although Sun contends such differences are reversed when customers consider the total cost of ownership over time.

Yen admitted, though, that Sun will likely be unable to compete on price versus a high-volume chipmaker like Intel.

"If we are at a cost disadvantage on a component basis, so be it," he said. "The challenge here how to provide the best systems for our customers."

That selling point has worked well for Sun over the past four years, with the company positioned as the worlds largest seller of 64-bit systems, followed by Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM.

Large companies often rely on 64-bit systems, which can address vast amounts of memory and handle thousands of simultaneous transactions, to run their core business applications.

But Sun has come under increasing pressure since October, when IBM released it newest processor architecture, the Power4, which features two CPUs on a single silicon die. IBM initially featured the chip in a 32-processor p690 server, and touted benchmarks that exceeded the performance scores of larger and more expensive Sun systems.

Despite the weak economy and high costs of the systems, fully configured servers costing more than $1 million, IBM says demand surpassed expectations as the company sold more than 1,000 systems in six months.

The pressure on Sun will intensify this summer when Intel releases its 1GHz Itanium 2, with the chipmaker repeatedly promoting performance benchmarks showing the processor far outperforming Suns upcoming 1GHz UltraSparc III.

But Yen discounted comparisons based on industry standard benchmarks, which have long been used to highlight performance differences between systems.

"In our opinion, many of the processor-oriented benchmarks are being outmoded" by new chip designs, and therefore dont accurately reflect system performance, Yen said.

He cited two popular benchmarks as "misleading," SPECfp and SPECint, which are used to measure floating point and integer performance, respectively.

The problem, he said, is that the larger on-die memory caches on some chips, such as Itanium 2s 3MB cache, skew the results since they can accommodate the entire benchmark program, and thus dont have to off-die to access memory, which is unrealistic.

"When a customer uses the system on real-life applications, they have to access off-chip memory, they have to access the network and peripherals," he said. "They are not going to get the kind of performance they expected from the SPEC benchmarks."

In summary, Sun sought to not only undermine the arguments of its competitors, but portray itself as the undisputed industry leader in the Unix space. Unlike Intel and IBM, Yen said, Sun has been and will remain focused on the needs and demands of the 64-bit market.

"With 20 years in the business," Yen said, "we know our customers … and how to address their needs."

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