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Dawn of new chip era for Sun

The new processors, which will lead to new workstations, are part of Sun's ambitious road map for the future.

Sun Microsystems released new versions of its UltraSparc II and integrated UltraSparc IIi chips today, which will lead to new workstations in the near future.

The new chips, which run at 400 MHz and 360 MHz respectively, are the first steps in an ambitious processor road map laid out by Sun in September designed to keep the company toward the front of the pack in 64-bit chip development.

Under the current plan, Sun will come out with a new generation of UltraSparc chips approximately every two years. By 2001, the company will be manufacturing UltraSparc IV chips running at 1,000 MHz, and lower-cost, integrated UltraSparc IIi chips at 700 MHz.

The performance of the UltraSparc II line are not exceptional compared to other chips in the same class, according to, among others, Linley Gwennap, publisher of MicroDesign Resources. Nonetheless, Sun leads the market in 64-bit chip sales.

The UltraSparc II chip released today runs at 400 MHz and comes with 4MB of performance-enhancing secondary cache memory, according to the company. Workstations utilizing the chip will come out in the near future, said sources close to the company.

Sun will follow this release with a 450-MHz version of the chip in the Spring of 1999. The speed improvements come as a result of a shift from the older 0.35-micron manufacturing process to the 0.25-micron manufacturing process. Texas Instruments makes the chips on behalf of Sun.

The 450-MHz version of the UltraSparc II lineup is new, according to a Sun spokesman. The company discovered during the process of developing the 400-MHz chip that it could safely boost the speed to 450-MHz.

While these chips will end up in Sun's high-end to midrange servers and workstations, the company has released a 360-MHz version of the UltraSparc IIi for its budget-boxes. The UltraSparc IIi chip, which integrates an UltraSparc II processor core with features such as a memory controller, came out at the beginning of the year to stem the popularity of Intel-based workstations. By integrating multiple functions onto a single piece of silicon, Sun was able to cut costs and release relatively inexpensive Unix workstations.

The 360-MHz UltraSparc IIi with 2MB of external cache, for instance, costs $1,400 in volume, less than Intel's 400-MHz Xeon processor with 1MB of cache. The 400-MHz UltraSparc II, meanwhile, sells for $4,249 in volume. The Ultra 5 and Ultra 10, the first two workstations released with the integrated chips, have sold well, according to various analysts. More are expected with the new chip, said sources close to Sun.

The new chips are only available in sample quantities, the company said. In Sun terminology, this means that the company will be able to ship computers with the new chips now, although not all demand will be capable of being met.