Sun, allies broaden open-source chip push

Two companies are working on derivatives of Sun's open-source Niagara processor; Sun plans to share Niagara 2's designs, too.

Sun Microsystems' open-source chip plan is bearing some early fruit, but the server and software company hopes to increase further involvement by sharing the designs of its forthcoming "Niagara 2" processor.

Sun has two early takers--Simply RISC, with operations in England and Italy, and Polaris Micro in China. Both are designing variations of OpenSparc S1, the open-source version of Sun's UltraSparc T1 Niagara processor.

But those companies and others will have more to work with in the future.

"It is our goal of eventually open-sourcing these Sparc processor designs," said David Yen, head of Sun's newly re-created microelectronics group, speaking of Niagara 2 and the Neptune networking chip derived from it.

Sun has begun arguably the most aggressive transformation of its business from proprietary products to the polar opposite, open source. Most of its software is or soon will be open source--an increasingly common practice in the computing industry--but Sun is unusual in releasing hardware designs as well.

"We truly believe OpenSparc will blossom in the future because it is open."
--Naxin Zhang, Polaris Micro CEO

As with its open-source software plans, the OpenSparc project is a bid for relevance first and revenue later.

The outside Sparc activity provides "a real example that OpenSparc is more than a publicity stunt," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "Although, as with Sun's other open-source activities, resultant revenue to Sun remains more a matter of faith than scientific fact."

Sun says it believes the open-source move will mean financial gain. "Through exposure and familiarity, we reduce the entry barrier--even if just mentally--for people to adopt Sparc processors in various places, including our system platform products," Yen said.

Sun wants to give Sparc a higher profile. The processors were the server brains of choice during the dot-com frenzy of the late 1990s, but they declined in importance as the chips lagged the competition's performance, delays hit new models and the dot-com bubble pulled the rug out from under Sun's server business.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has stabilized its server business somewhat, partly because its UltraSparc IV+ servers did much better than expected, partly because Sun belatedly welcomed x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron into its server line, and partly because Niagara servers have made modest gains--for example, sales of $125 million in each of the last two quarters.

Although Sun has hedged its bets with x86, it's still pushing Sparc hard. Niagara 2 is due soon in single-processor machines and in dual-processor models in the first half of 2008. Its high-end cousin, "Rock," is due to ship in servers in the second half of 2008. Sun last week announced that its Solaris operating system now has booted on a Rock prototype server, a significant accomplishment that indicates not just that the chip works reasonably well, but that the rest of the system does, as well.

Selling derivatives
OpenSparc has gained Sun some allies. China-based Polaris Micro chose to use the chip because it's open source, Chief Executive Naxin Zhang said. It's using its OpenSparc variant, to be built by a local chip foundry, in a system board it will sell to customers in the telecommunications and data-storage businesses.

"I can view and modify the source code. It also comes with verification, architecture simulation and other tools," Zhang said. "We truly believe OpenSparc will blossom in the future because it is open."

That openness makes it possible, for example, to build a version that plugs into the "Torrenza" chip socket used by Advanced Micro Devices. One Chinese telecommunications company is interested in that possibility, Zhang said.

Simply RISC, too, was drawn by the open-source license. Sun chose the General Public License (GPL), which also governs the Linux kernel and thousands of other software projects.

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