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Fujitsu designs Sparc chip

One of Sun Microsystems' top five buyers of Sparc processors is striking out on its own with sophisticated new servers.

Fujitsu, one of Sun Microsystems' top five buyers of Sparc processors, is striking out on its own with sophisticated servers based on an in-house Sparc chip design.

Fujitsu's 64-bit chip, called the Sparc64-GP, will be at the heart of a new line of servers sold by Fujitsu's North American distributor, HAL Computer Systems, said Bill Shellooe, vice president of sales at HAL. The first systems are expected to ship by January.

A cloned Sparc processor has the potential to both help and harm Sun, but the net effect is probably positive, according to Keith Diefendorff, a microchip analyst at MicroDesign Resources.

On the one hand, there is a limited market for Sparc chips, and a cloned chip can eat into Sun's market share. On the other, "Having that competitor could be a good thing for Sun," Diefendorff said, because "it appears to purchasers that there's more mass or weight or industry interest in Sparc."

Having more muscle behind Sun's Unix platform could help the company get more applications written for the Sparc architecture and therefore be in a stronger position fighting off Microsoft's operating system threat, he said.

The GP7000F server series will parallel HAL's existing GP7000 series, which uses Sun chips. Both lines will be manufactured by Fujitsu in Japan, Shellooe said, and both will be offered with Sun's Solaris version of the Unix operating system. The lines will have similar if not identical pricing, but the new GP7000F series will have better performance and will use a different architecture for the main data path, known as a "bus," instead of Sun's technology.

Fujitsu believes the chip will appeal to customers who want a more reliable chip that's still compatible with Solaris environments. Part of the chip's real estate is devoted to technologies such as "parity-checking" that can find and correct incorrect data, according to an industry source.

The Sparc64-GP chip, which has 17.6 million transistors, will be offered at initial speeds of 250 MHz and 275 MHz, with a 300-MHz chip expected in mid-1999.

The chips have better performance than Sun's UltraSparc-II at an equivalent "clock" speed, sources said, but Sun's chips run at faster speeds--currently 400 MHz. Clock speed refers to the megahertz rating of the chip.

Although Fujitsu now has decreased its reliance on Sun, the company has no plans to cancel its arrangements with Sun. "It's very clear that [Fujitsu] still is an OEM [original equipment manufacturer] for Sun servers," Shellooe said.

HAL, which Fujitsu bought in 1993, is the company that developed the cloned chip. For several years, the firm has been selling workstations for scientific applications, using chips based on its own Sparc design. Fujitsu has licensed Sun's specifications for Sparc chips, meaning that it paid Sun a fee for access to the basic Sparc architecture, said Sun spokesman Roger Knott.

HAL's GP7000F line initially will have two models, the 200, with one or two processors and as much as 4GB or memory, and the 600, with two to eight processors and 8GB or memory.

The first GP7000F products will ship by January with 4MB of David Van Beveren of EIS Computers, a company that builds computers based on Sun's Sparc chips, said he wouldn't rule out using a Sun-clone chip in his machines, but such a move "would require a lot of market research. We've always gone to market with the premise that 'powered by Sun' is an important part of our product."

The Sparc-clone chips aren't likely to appeal to current Sun customers running the Solaris OS, he said, but the alternative market such as people running the Linux operating system might be interested, Van Beveren said.

Because Sun published the specifications of how its Sparc chips worked years ago, it's relatively easy to make a chip that functions the same way, Van Beveren said. Other companies have come and gone that made their own Sparc chips, he added.

But cloning a chip still is a difficult task, Diefendorff said. Just to design a modern processor takes 100-person teams of engineers three years, and designing a chip "that is exactly compatible with another one is a significant addition to that effort," he said.

Diefendorff noted that it's easier to clone RISC chips such as Sun's UltraSparc-II than it is to clone more architecturally complex chips such as Intel's x86 designs.

"That doesn't mean it's like falling off a log. It's just not the scale of ... doing an x86 clone," he said. Companies like AMD and Cyrix "have spent a long time doing that."