Sun scraps low-end 'Serrano' Sparc chip

Server maker drops UltraSparc IIIi+ processor to focus on other, higher-priority chips.

Sun Microsystems has canceled its lower-end UltraSparc IIIi+ "Serrano" processor, choosing instead to focus its priorities on alternatives including its more radical "Niagara" chip family.

Sun had planned to introduce the UltraSparc IIIi+ chips in three servers, the V215, V245 and V445, models that likely will be announced at a Sun event Sept. 13. But the company chose to scrap the chip, John Fowler, Sun's executive vice president of systems, said in an interview Thursday.

"We canceled it last fiscal year to focus on the ramp (up) of UltraSparc IV+, Niagara and Niagara 2," he said. "The big push in the volume area is Niagara 2," he said, referring to lower-end machines that sell in high volumes.

It's not the first time Sun has made pragmatic decisions about its chip priorities. The company scrapped its UltraSparc V "Millennium" chip in 2004 in favor of an alliance that let it use Fujitsu's Sparc64 processors. And it abandoned a low-end dual-core UltraSparc II-based design, Gemini, at the same time.

The UltraSparc IIIi+ differed from Sun's IIIi "Jalapeno" predecessor chiefly in the use of a more advanced manufacturing process that let the company expand built-in cache memory from 1MB to 4MB. But Fowler said of the new chip's performance: "It was only a moderate speed grade."

Niagara, officially called UltraSparc T1, employs an unusual design with eight processing cores, each able to execute four simultaneous instruction sequences called threads. Sun is trying to use the design to win back some of its tarnished reputation as an innovator in the server market.

In comparison, most processors today, including Sun's other UltraSparc models, use only one or two cores and can execute one or two threads, but can execute an individual thread more quickly. Sun's UltraSparc IIIi and IIIi+ chips were single-core models that could run a single thread.

Sun sold $100 million worth of Niagara servers in the second quarter of the year, a period that also showed strong sales of its higher-end UltraSparc IV+ machines after catching up with stronger-than-expected purchasing. "Last year we had challenges ramping UltraSparc IV+ fast enough for demand," Fowler said.

Sun has high hopes for Niagara 2, which can run 64 threads and is expected to debut in systems in the second half of 2007.

"Niagara 2 is going very well, so we decided to just focus on that. We have lots of parts, and it is running very fast," Fowler said.

Compared with the UltraSparc IIIi-based models, the V215, V245 and V445 are distinguished chiefly by a faster input-output system. The new systems include PCI Express for input-output, a faster communications technology than the older PCI used in the V210, V240 and V440.

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