Sun puts 16 cores on its 'Rock' chip

High-end chip likely will stay a step ahead of competitors in the multicore processor race. Also, the chip design could be done this year.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems, already an aggressive advocate of multicore processing, will try to stay a step ahead of the game by putting 16 cores in its high-end Rock chip.

With overheating capping chip speeds, chipmakers have been scrambling to improve performance instead by packing multiple processing engines onto a single slice of silicon. Sun got an early start with its UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor, which has eight cores, and it looks like Rock will keep the company a step ahead of the competition.

Rock will have 16 cores, John Fowler, executive vice president of Sun's systems business, said in an interview Thursday. Rock-based servers, due to arrive in servers in 2008, will likely come as competitors' chips have at most eight cores, analysts say. Boosting performance is crucial to Sun's attempt to reverse the diminished influence and use of its Sparc family of processors, which have lost share to mainstream x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices and to rivals such as IBM's Power family.

"Sun clearly has gone further with multicore approaches, even with Niagara and Niagara 2, than everybody else. This is just a logical extrapolation of what they've done," said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "If it's going to 16 cores, with multiple threads (independent instruction sequences) per core, it's going to be a real barn-burner."

Servers for years have been built with multiple processors, so it's not as if competitors lacking a 16-core design will have no answer to Sun's products. But packing more performance into a single processor provides a way to reduce processor and system manufacturing costs and to boost performance without compounding today's problems with keeping data centers cool.

A Rock design-completion milestone called "tape-out" for the chip is just a few weeks away, Marc Tremblay, Sun's chief architect, said in a meeting here Wednesday. The company is holding a contest right now: if Sun engineers don't tape out the design by December 31, they'll all have to wear a tie, formal attire that Tremblay suspects is lacking from many of the designers' wardrobes.

Among competitors, Intel just moved to quad-core designs by mounting two silicon chips in a single processor package, and AMD's "Barcelona," with four cores on one slice of silicon, is due in mid-2007. Brookwood believes it possible some of these competitors will be able to release eight-core designs in 2008, but not 16.

Moving at a more stately multicore pace is Intel's Itanium family, which just reached dual-core status. Even Power6, due in 2007 from multicore pioneer IBM, will have only dual cores. A Fujitsu Sparc64 processor due in 2008 will have four cores.

Defining what exactly constitutes a core is a tricky business, though. David Yen, Sun's previous Sparc chief, said earlier that some Rock features are shared across multiple cores, blurring the boundaries somewhat.

Sun's chip reputation has been tarnished by years of delays and missteps in its Sparc processor business, said Greg Quick, an analyst with the 451 Group, but the company has partially restored it by meeting Niagara schedules. If it can show customers that Rock will significantly boost performance, Sun should be able at least to prevent current customers from phasing out their Sun servers.

Heavyweight cores
Niagara has eight cores, but competitors have dinged Sun because each core is lightweight compared with those in current chips, such as Intel Xeon or IBM's Power. With the ability to handle 32 threads, Niagara can get a lot of work done in a given amount of time, but the time taken to complete a specific task is relatively long.

Rock's design has a more traditional emphasis on performance, though, with threads running faster when measured individually as well as in aggregate. "Rock tries to optimize for high per-thread performance," Tremblay said.

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