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Sun scales down UltraSparc chips

Sun Microsystems, facing increased competition from Intel in the entry-level workstations market, will respond by adding to its lineup a new 64-bit RISC processor running at 250 to 300 MHz.

Sun Microsystems (SUNW), facing increased competition from Intel in the entry-level workstations market, will respond next year by adding to its lineup a new 64-bit RISC processor running at 250 to 300 MHz.

The new UltraSparc i-series, due to ship in the second half of 1997, incorporates the PCI bus interface and memory control silicon, all on a single chip. Sun says the integrated design improves performance and simplifies system design due to its compatibility with ubiquitous PCI-based motherboards.

"We're really aggressively defending the workstation territory in the financial, CAD/CAM and medical imaging markets," said Marge Breya, director of corporate marketing for Sun, alluding to incursions into this market from Pentium-Pro processor-based systems. Breya says the UltraSparc i-series is expected to compete with volume-priced Pentium and Pentium Pro processors in the market for chips priced under $500.

This is the first Sun processor that is PCI-compatible, a feature which will allow for use of low-cost peripherals designed for the PC market. The 33/66-MHz PCI-bus will be able to deliver up to 256MB/sec of I/O bandwidth, according to Sun.

UltraSparc i-series chips will also incorporate Visual Instruction Set (VIS) extensions to the CPU instruction set for speeding up various multimedia applications such as 3D graphics rendering, MPEG-2 video and audio compression, networking, and even encryption algorithms. VIS is analogous to Intel's upcoming MMX-enabled chips. The Sun technology has already been used in Sun products for over a year.

Increasing the performance of workstations isn't the only market that Sun is hoping to win. "We're laying the infrastructure for the Internet with the increasing need for hubs, switches, and routers," Breya said. Use in embedded devices and Unix servers are other targets.

Moreover, Sun isn't ruling out network computers (NCs). "It is possible that this chip could eventually be used for NC applications," Breya said, adding that the price point for systems using the i-series chips will initially be in the $2,000 range. IBM's recently announced NCs are being priced at $700, so Sun would have to do some price reductions before seeing their adoption in thin-client applications.

Initially, the most likely Sun processors slated for use in NC-reference design platforms will be the microJava chips that are slated to make an appearance next year.