Sun: UltraSPARC Not Dead Yet

Sun's top microprocessor executive now says the UltraSPARC V may come to market after all, following the recent refocusing of the company's roadmap.

Suns top microprocessor executive said Tuesday that the UltraSPARC V may come to market after all, after the company "focused" its roadmap at the end of last week.

David Yen, executive vice president of processor and network products for Sun Microsystems Inc., said the company also may explore closer ties to Fujitsu Ltd., a licensee of its SPARC architecture.

At the end of last week, Sun of Mountain View, Calif., said it would lay off 3,300 employees and cancel the UltraSPARC V and "Gemini" processor, a chip that contained two cores and was designed for servers.

Rivals seized on Suns reworked roadmap as an indication that the systems vendor had run out of steam and that the UltraSPARC line had nowhere left to go. Companies such as Intel Corp. publish general roadmaps of their processor direction, which allow customers to plot their own expansion paths.

But Yen said this week that the companys roadmap remains "focused" and that the company remains absolutely committed to the UltraSPARC line.

"With the UltraSPARC V announcement, there was a misleading perception we are killing future generations of SPARC," Yen said. "Instead, we are not canceling future generations of SPARC, we are adjusting direction to be better served with a new breed of processors and corresponding platforms."

Sun may not even kill off the UltraSPARC V brand, simply applying the label to another core. "There is an internal debate [whether] to skip the number," Yen acknowledged.

Yen confirmed that the design teams responsible for the UltraSPARC V (aka "Millennium") and Gemini programs had been part of the layoffs but was prevented from commenting further by a Sun spokeswoman, who said the company is in its quiet period. More details will be revealed Thursday when Sun reports its quarterly earnings to Wall Street analysts, she said.

Sun recently introduced its UltraSPARC IV chip, and the company plans a move to 90-nm geometries, dubbed UltraSPARC IV+, next year.

From there, Sun will use expertise applied from its July 2002 acquisition of Afara Websystems Inc. to its "Niagara" line in 2006, which will increase application performance with a technology called "chip-level multithreading." Subsequently, its on to "Rock", Yen said, which combines the multithreading technology with virtual cores that may or may not be dedicated to application-specific functions.

"If you look at this from our perspective, Suns processor roadmap will be a very clean one and in our opinion a very effective one," Yen said.

The "incremental growth" that the UltraSPARC V offered will instead be replaced by a generational leap with the Niagara, according to Yen. "Incremental growth is not necessary," he said. "At worst, youre losing time, leaving things on the table."

Analysts observed that the UltraSPARC V was expected to be somewhat of a stopgap between the enhanced UltraSPARC IV and Niagara. According to Yen, some of the "resources" involved in both the UltraSPARC V and Gemini have been shifted to Gemini and Rock, a move that will allow the company to potentially release both chips earlier than expected.

"Thats the right approach," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64 in Saratoga, Calif. "Why continue to invest in UltraSPARC V, which will have a relatively short lifetime, when you can rapidly invest in the Rock stuff? The only danger I see there is if they hit a development snag with Rock, a la the problem they had with the UltraSPARC III."

Rivals, naturally, said there were too many unanswered questions in Suns roadmap. "Whats been communicated so far has been the factual aspect, that theyre going to stop moving forward on UltraSPARC V and beyond," said Mark Hudson, vice president of marketing for business-critical systems within the global business unit of Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif.

He suggested that the performance of the UltraSPARC IV wont keep up with rival architectures. "What I havent seen yet is whats the implications of that, first and foremost from a customer perspective."

But thats not the way one customer saw it. Michael Hodges, manager of systems services at the University of Hawaii, said he applauds the moves that Sun is making, both in refocusing its SPARC development efforts and in entering the lower-cost x86 space with Advanced Micro Devices Inc.s Opteron processor.

"Sun is most definitely retrenching, and that is a good thing," Hodges said in Honolulu. "I see many similarities between Sun and that 80s stellar company, [Digital Equipment Corp.], except that Sun has more options than DEC given its middleware stack, [Java Enterprise System]. Sun is also changing the focus from a fixation on raw performance to manageability and utilization of resources."

The university runs a large server farm that is managed by a small staff, requiring a lot of repetitive work to manage the servers. "We are not getting every ounce of potential CPU cycles out of the servers," he said. "Suns prioritization of these issues will better help us."

The school is rethinking its IT platform in terms of tiers, with its mission-critical Student Information System running on an UltraSparc III/Solaris platform. Later, the university will roll out its lighter, Web-enabled applications on x86 systems running Linux "so that we can aggressively contain costs," Hodges said. "Here, too, Sun is playing into our needs with their diversification."

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