IBM, Sun Show Off Upcoming RISC Processors

IBM and Sun Microsystems used the Hot Chips 21 show to give engineers a preview of the new RISC chips that are coming down the line. IBM's Power7 and Sun's "Rainbow Falls" are both due out in 2010. Intel and AMD also gave presentations on upcoming server chips, including Intel's eight-core "Nehalem EX" processor. AMD gave more details on its upcoming 12-core "Magny-Cours" processor.

IBM, Sun Microsystems and Advanced Micro Devices were among the vendors using the Hot Chips 21 conference to give engineers an idea of what to expect in upcoming processors.

Intel also gave attendees at the show, which ran Aug. 23-25 in Palo Alto, Calif., a look at its upcoming "Nehalem EX" processor for servers with four or more sockets.

However, it was IBM, with its upcoming Power7, that got a lot of the attention. IBM officials said the chip, which is due out in systems in 2010, will come in 4-, 6- and 8-core flavors, and can simultaneously run four instruction threads per core.

The new chip reportedly will have two to three times the performance and two to five times the throughput of the current Power6 chips, and will do all that within the same power envelope. The 45-nanometer Power7 chips also will share binary compatibility with the Power6 processors, easing the transition for customers moving to the newer platform.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said that a new on-chip memory innovation on the chip is particularly interesting. Called eDRAM, the technology provides 32MB of on-chip L3 cache, which offers a significant boost in both latency and bandwidth over traditional external L3 technologies, King said in a report issued Aug. 26. And while not as fast as SRAM, eDRAM needs only a third of the space and a fifth of the power.

The result will be higher performance at lower frequencies than Power6 cores, he said, all of which will be good news to IBM and its customers.

"IBM's mixture of utterly recognizable and entirely new features makes Power7 one of the most intriguing enterprise-class processors to come down the pike since, well, Power6," King wrote.

King and other analysts said the Power7 also was a key focus of an analyst day the vendor had in Austin, Texas, earlier this month. IBM officials not only touted the upcoming processor platform, but also how well the company had done in siphoning off RISC customers from rivals Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems, both of which are having their own challenges with their high-end systems.

Over the past three years, since IBM introduced its Migration Factory, more than 1,750 businesses have moved to the Power platform, with 89 percent of that coming from Sun and HP, King said. That apparently has accelerated in recent months, and could continue to. Sun is in the process of being bought by Oracle, which is generating questions about the future of its hardware business. The $7.4 billion deal is expected to close this summer.

In addition, Sun is being dogged by reports that it has killed "Rock," a multicore UltraSPARC processor that officials had said would compete against high-end chips from IBM and Intel.

HP is being hampered by the continued delays by Intel in releasing the next-generation Itanium chip, codenamed "Tukwila." Tukwila initially was scheduled for release in 2007, but now won't begin appearing in systems until 2010, "and the chip's reported quad-core configuration and use of 65-nm [manufacturing] processes will make it look rather old-school compared to Power7," King wrote.

For its part, Sun officials at the Hot Chips show talked about its upcoming "Rainbow Falls" processor, the successor to the company's multi-core Niagara chips. The chip reportedly will hold 16 cores and run 128 threads, and will require about 30 percent more power than the latest version of Niagara, the T2+.

AMD also is ramping up the number of cores in its Opteron line of server chips. An upcoming 12-core chip, dubbed "Magny-Cours," is due out in 2010. The processor essentially will be two six-core chips brought into a single package, and will run in the same power envelope as the current six-core "Istanbul" processor.

Intel officials talked about its eight-core Nehalem EX, which the company has detailed in other presentations. The chip, which is due out in 2010, will offer up to 16 threads per chip through Intel's Hyper-Threading technology and 24MB of share cache. It will replace the six-core Xeon 7400 Series "Dunnington" processor.

Intel officials in May said the Nehalem EX will offer businesses a high-end x86 alternative to the RISC processors from the likes of IBM and Sun.