Sun Hoping Niagra 2
Falls into Place”>
Sun Microsystems, which has fought to win back both its financial and technological mantel, is taking the next step in its microprocessor business Aug. 7 with the debut of the latest UltraSPARC chip.
The UltraSPARC T2, also known as Niagara 2, has the same number of cores—up to eight—as the original Niagara processor, but Sun engineers have doubled the number of instructions on each core from four to eight, giving the chip a total of 64 threads.
Instead of ratcheting up the clock speed, as IBM did with its Power6 processor and as Intel has done with its quad-core Xeon chips, Sun focused on increasing the thread count to increase performance and double the throughput compared to the older Niagara processor.
The release of the Suns newest Niagara processor is the first major update to the chip line since the first UltraSPARC T1 was introduced in 2005. It also comes just a week after the company reported a solid financial fourth quarter with a net income of $329 million, compared to a year-earlier loss of $301 million. Revenues were $3.84 billion this year compared to $3.83 billion from last year.
As the company works to regain its financial footing, it also looking to bounce back and prove that its silicon offerings can compete against any of those offered by IBM, Intel or even Advanced Micro Devices. The announcement is also a big boost for the companys newly minted Microelectronics Division, which not only creates new technologies for Suns own products but also looks to sell patents to other vendors.
Sun is also looking to drum up interest in the Niagara 2 with other system vendors and is planning to launch the chip months before the company releases new servers built around the processor.
David Yen, executive vice president of Suns Microelectronics Division, said the new chip, with all its additional features, will appeal to a much broader audience than the current UltraSPARC T1, including those vendors that want to use Niagara in their own systems.
“Sun established this new business and [our customers and other vendors] have a strong interest in Suns silicon technology,” Yen said. “Time will tell and this is a very ambitious plan. Sun doesnt own foundries and it doesnt have the resources of, say, an Intel. What we do have is the superiority of technology and Niagara will be a significant step for our microelectronics business within the industry.”
Since Sun is promoting its CMT (chip multithreading) with Niagara 2, the Santa Clara, Calif. company will offer the first two versions of the chip with clock speeds of only 1.2GHz and 1.4GHz. The chip also offers a large L2 cache—4MB—that is shared across eight banks.
While that might have been seen as a downside in an industry that still places great emphasis on clock speed, Sun has also made a number of significant changes with Niagara 2 to take advantage of CMT, including increasing the floating point performance of the new chip, which had been a downside to the previous generation.
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Engineers have now added one floating point execution unit to each core. The upside of this development, according to Yen, is that Niagara 2 can handle high-performing workloads running scientific applications.
Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64, said the performance benchmarks that Sun is using to demonstrate performance of its Niagara 2, both in terms of general computing and floating point ability, are impressive.
“Compared to the performance of its prior Niagara chip, I think these benchmarks show an interesting demo of the companys use of its chip multithreading technology,” Brookwood said. “What you are getting is amazing performance within a reasonable power envelop. It is quite stunning and it validates the companys premise of what a multicore processor with simple cores can do.”
With that in mind, Brookwood believes that Niagara-based systems, when they come to market, will be able to compete with IBMs Power lineup as well as the x86 offerings from Advanced Micro Devices and Intel.
“Before this … Niagara could only be used for Web type applications that couldnt [be used] in a workstation or in any type of application that you need floating point performance,” he said.
Sun executives have noted that the thermal envelope for the Niagara 2 will be 90 watts, although it could range to as low as 80 watts at 1.2GHz when running a Java business application and as high as about 120 watts at 1.4GHz if the system is running a floating point intensive application.
The company has also increased the number of interfaces on Niagara 2, including a memory interface with four dual-channel FB-DIMM (fully buffered dual in-line memory modules) controllers, an I/O interface that uses PCI Express interface, and a pair of 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports for networking.
On the security side, the processor offers a number of improvements, including eight cryptographic acceleration units with a total of 10 independent function addresses, which include algorithms approved by the National Security Agency. The cryptographic capabilities have also been matched to the Ethernet function to eliminate bottlenecking and to allow for secure computing without limiting network performance.
Dean Sauder, a senior network engineer with the Howrey LLP law firm in Washington, D.C., has been working with Sun products for a number of years and helped install several T2000 systems at the law firms data center to assist with backing up data.
What Sauder looked for from the original Niagara—and now the new processor—is a chip that could handle massive throughput. “We have a really complex [set up in the data center] and wanted to take a fire hose approach to one of the systems that could handle a ridiculous amount of I/O and a system that the ability to drive network connections,” he said.
Sauder said he is preparing to test a new Sun system with a Niagara 2 processor and will try to use it to consolidate the law firms data backup servers.
The other major difference between Niagara 1 and 2 is that fact that Sun built the newer chip on a 65-nanometer manufacturing process, as opposed to 90 nanometers. This allowed engineers to shrink the die from 378 square millimeters to 342 square millimeters.
This fact, combined with the chips emphasis on CMT as opposed to a core focused on clock speed, allowed Sun to place more cores, as well as features that eliminated additional supporting chips, on the same die, said Rick Hetherington, chief technology officer of Suns Microelectronics Division.
When Sun rolls out systems that use the Niagara 2 platform later this year, Hetherington said the company will target some of the same users as the original Niagara chip, though he said the new chip will attract a much larger following.
Telecommunication companies and Web service providers are two main sets of customers Sun plans to pursue. The company currently offers a telecom blade with the original Niagara processor.
“There has been enormous growth in connectivity, whether that is through handheld devices such as cell phones like the iPhone,” Hetherington said. “There is [an] enormous amount of connectivity that is happening on the consumer level and on the client side and we are targeting products that can support the infrastructure on the server side. That support extends not only from the edge but deep into the data center, with systems that supporting application serving and database serving.”
After Niagara 2 debuts, Sun plans on moving ahead with a scalable version of the processor, dubbed “Victoria Falls,” which is being designed for two-socket systems. The chip is expected to hit the market in the first half of 2008.
In the second half of 2008, Sun will debut its Rock processor, which will have 16 cores on the die. Earlier this year, Sun conducted its first test of Rock on a system to see if it could successfully boot the Solaris 10 operating system.