Sun Hopes to Make Waves with Niagara

Sun lets loose its long-awaited "Niagara" SPARC processor for the Web tier, marking the largest advance to date in the company's Throughput Computing strategy.

Sun Microsystems Inc. is readying the latest—and perhaps biggest—step in its efforts to revitalize its SPARC platform and remake itself into a systems vendor able to serve all sectors of the market.

Sun this week is unveiling its long-touted "Niagara" processor, the third major rollout in the past two months for the Santa Clara, Calif., company, which is aggressively trying to separate itself from its past as a vendor focused solely on its SPARC-Solaris platform for high-end customers.

UltraSPARC T1, which will start appearing in systems by the end of the year, marks the largest advance to date in Suns Throughput Computing strategy.

The chip offers eight cores per chip running up to four instruction threads each and addresses the growing issues of energy consumption and heat generation by using only 70 watts of power.

Sun is aiming the technology at the Web tier, a sector currently dominated by x86 systems running Linux, where the demand for massive amounts of parallelism is growing as more companies move their businesses onto the Web.

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"The UltraSPARC T1 was built for todays entry into the Participation Age, where 3 million people a week are joining the network not just to get access to information but to interact with each other—blogging, shopping, podcasting, sharing photos, distance learning—all of which puts huge horizontal throughput demands on the infrastructure," said Sun Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy in an interview with eWEEK.

"The UltraSPARC T1 processor is designed for this growing Web load. It moves large volumes of data for the billion-plus subscribers who are pinging the Web and has great throughput."

Advanced Micro Devices Inc., IBM and Intel Corp. all have chips with two cores, but none runs more than two threads. Suns multithreaded approach is designed to give users better performance without increasing the energy consumed or heat generated through its CoolThreads approach.

Sun kept the wattage low by lowering the clock speed —the chip runs at 1.2GHz—and making other changes, such as shortening the pipelines and removing high-powered, high-speed, chip-to-chip communications.

Marc Tremblay, Sun vice president and chief architect, said the company made a conscious choice to focus less on latency and more on throughput—executing as many instructions at one time as possible—which is more important to UltraSPARC T1s target market.

"Extremely high clock rate is mostly a latency-reduction feature," Tremblay said.

The chip also will feature four on-board memory controllers to improve its efficiency by moving the data between the cores and memory as quickly as possible.

Denis Weber, executive director of IT for Verizon Wireless, said he will evaluate the new Sun chip and hopes it can help address power and heat issues in his data centers.

Verizon had to replace the power infrastructure in its Dublin, Ohio, data center three times since 1999, and the company probably will have to do the same to its other centers to handle issues created by faster chips and smaller servers.

That said, Weber is not expecting that his problems will be solved immediately.

"Ive got a healthy skepticism," said Weber, who runs a mixture of systems from Sun, Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM in his three data centers, which cover 70,000 square feet.

"I dont think [UltraSPARC T1] will be the silver bullet. But well definitely take a look at it. I think Niagara is a good attempt. It might help. But it will take two or three generations of chip development beyond that [to make a marked difference]," he said.

Competitors are discounting UltraSPARC T1 as a desperate move by a company that has lost market share over the past few years. However, McNealy said through the rapid growth of its product offerings, Sun is now able to compete in all sectors of the market, and UltraSPARC T1 is only the latest weapon in the armory.

"Others in the industry are now talking about following our approach, but theyve got a lot of work ahead of them," McNealy said.

In the past two months, Sun has unveiled its Galaxy line of servers based on AMDs Opteron chips and rolled out the UltraSPARC IV+ processor.

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Next year, Sun will launch the UltraSPARC IIIi+ processor and a family of RISC servers—called the Advanced Product Line—jointly developed with Fujitsu Ltd.

Sun also is working on "Niagara 2" and "Rock," a chip with fewer threads scheduled for release in 2008.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Inc., said Niagara is a move that Sun needed to make.

"At this particular point, everything is a gamble for Sun," said King, in Hayward, Calif.

"It is a radical departure. Sun for so long was the bellwether for the Unix industry. Sun needs to show that its in a proactive position rather than a reactive one."

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