Sun: Niagara sequel more power-efficient

Niagara 2 will consume 70 to 80 watts running flat out, plus it handles more chores than today's Niagara 1.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems has been touting the efficiency of servers using its first-generation UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor, but it's promising greater gains with the chip's sequel.

The first Niagara consumes about 70 watts running flat out. Sun now thinks Niagara 2 will consume between 70 and 80 watts, John Fowler, executive vice president of systems, said in a meeting with reporters at Sun offices here Tuesday.

Although that power consumption is "just a teeny bit above Niagara 1," Fowler said, the newer chip absorbs several functions that today require separate electronics and also can handle 64 simultaneous instruction sequences, called threads--twice that of Niagara 1.

Niagara 2's built-in features include 10-gigabit-per-second networking, including full-speed encryption, PCI Express communications and four memory controllers. It's an example of the trend toward "system on a chip."

On the flip side, the chip requires FB-DIMM (fully buffered dual inline memory modules), a more power-hungry technology than the DDR2 (double data rate 2) memory used in today's Niagara servers. Memory, in fact, will determine whether a complete Niagara 2 system will consume more than a Niagara 1 system.

"Systems with larger memory will be above. With smaller memories, Niagara 2 systems will burn less," Fowler said.

Sun released its first Niagara-based servers a year ago and currently sells more than $100 million of the systems per quarter. The Niagara 2 models are due to arrive in the second half of 2007 . Both systems are on the front lines of Sun's battle to restore the relevance and market position it lost when the dot-com bubble popped.

Sun's priority on energy efficiency isn't unique. Among the other three major server companies, IBM and Hewlett-Packard have touted technology to monitor and throttle energy usage in data centers, while Dell introduced a power-efficient server line Monday.

The first Niagara chips don't handle mathematical operations using "floating-point" numbers well, with eight processing cores sharing one floating-point engine, but Niagara 2 "fixes that" with one floating-point unit per core, Fowler said.

"We will have pretty startling SPECfp numbers," he said, referring to a floating-point seed test. "There will be people who look at it for numerical computing. It will be quite exceptional in performance," he said, because it has eight floating-point units and high memory communication speeds.

Sun also is preparing Niagara 3 , a system that extends the current Niagara design approach Sun calls chip multithreading.


Correction: This story incorrectly described the speed of Niagara 2's built-in networking. The chips support two direct network connections running at 10 gigabits per second.
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