Sun Microsystems is turning to a new partner to help build its next generation of UltraSPARC microprocessors.
The Santa Clara, Calif., company announced Feb. 19 that it has inked an agreement with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing and will use its foundry to manufacture Sun’s next-generation, 45-nanometer UltraSPARC processors.
“One of the reasons why we chose TSMC is that when we looked at our road map, we saw the processor nodes changing from 45 nanometers and then to 32 nanometers, and we were looking to increase the performance and the timing [of brining the UltraSPARC processors to market],” said Fadi Azhari, director of marketing for SPARC CMT (chip multithreading technology) for Sun.
“What TSMC offered really fit in what we wanted to do,” said Azhari. “The second reason is that TSMC has a high-volume foundry business and we benefit from economies of scale.”
For years, Sun relied on Texas Instruments and that company’s fabs to produce its microprocessors. Azhari said TI will continue to assist Sun in the development, testing and packaging of its chips, but the bulk of the production for 45-nanometer will now switch to TSMC. TI will continue to produce Sun’s line of 65-nanometer processors, including the UltraSPARC T2, or Niagara 2, chip that came to market in August.
TI Moving Away from Foundry Business
One reason that Sun needed to find a new partner is that TI is moving away from the foundry business to concentrate on other ventures. In addition, Sun’s approach to its UltraSPARC now focuses more on building a commodity chip that requires different types of transistors, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64.
“With the older series of UltraSPARC chips, the key to the performance was finding the fastest transistors possible,” Brookwood said. “Now, Sun is pushing more throughput and parallel computing, and the transistors’ [switching speed] performance is not as important as it used to be with the older chips.”
As a company, Sun has resisted going into the fab business. Azhari said the company prefers the flexibility that comes with partnering with Texas Instruments and TSMC. Fabs are also expensive undertakings. Intel, for example, recently announced that it had spent about $3 billion to develop and build a facility that opened in 2007.
Azhari declined to say which of Sun’s microprocessors would shrink to 45 nanometers. The company’s next UltraSPARC chip, dubbed “Rock,” is now scheduled for release in 2009 and will be manufactured initially at 65 nanometers.
In the semiconductor business, both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are bringing their chips down to the 45-nanometer level. Intel is already producing 45-nanonmeter x86 processors. AMD is expected to make the switch later this year.
IBM is also working on shrinking some of its processors.
The change from 65- to 45-nanometer microprocessors allows vendors to place more microprocessors on each silicon wafer, which cuts costs.
On the technology side, Azhari said the move to 45 nanometers will allow Sun to add more cores, add more instructional threads and cut down on the power consumption while increasing the throughput of its new generation of chips. It will also allow Sun to build more functionality into its processors such as system-on-a-chip technology.
The agreement between Sun and TSMC covers the development of 45-nanometer processors. There is no agreement in place for when Sun turns its attention to 32-nanometer chips.