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New Sun priorities could speed Niagara servers

Company will likely switch the order of the arrival of two new server models, a potential boon for Sun.

Sun Microsystems likely will switch the order of arrival of two forthcoming server models, putting a higher priority on systems using the comparatively radical Niagara processor.

Shipping Niagara-based servers could be a boon for Sun, which is seeking to keep its Sparc family of processors competitive but which has had trouble bringing new processors to market on schedule. But advancing Niagara's schedule would come at the expense of slowing down a more conventional processor, the UltraSparc IIIi+.

"We may choose to release Niagara before the IIIi+," Andy Ingram, vice president of marketing for Sun's Sparc-based servers, said in a Wednesday interview. "We think bringing Niagara to market sooner has a higher value to us and our customers."

Boosting Niagara would boost Sun, said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "If they could accelerate Niagara--even by a few months into this calendar year--that would be a phenomenal boost for the company," he said.

For one thing, it would "demonstrate that their execution has been very crisp on this program," and for another, it would let customers evaluate systems, Brookwood said. If Niagara lives up to Sun's claims, it will provide high enough performance and consume little enough electricity that the company could attract new customers to Sparc.

Niagara has been due to arrive in systems in 2006, but Ingram said customers have prototype systems today and an earlier shipment date is possible. "The latest will be early 2006 that we introduce the products," he said. "It's coming in better than any other processor we've ever produced."

Sun's UltraSparc processors are the foundation of a server line that was tremendously popular in the 1990s but has lost share to systems based on Intel's Xeon and IBM's Power family since then. And Intel continues to push its Itanium processor, sold chiefly by Hewlett-Packard.

Sun's response has been threefold. It's aggressively pushing Sparc designs: Niagara, its Niagara II sequel, and its high-end cousin Rock. The company signed a deal to use Fujitsu's high-end Olympus processor as a replacement for its canceled UltraSparc V. And it's designing new "Galaxy" servers based on Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processor, an x86 chip compatible with Intel's Xeon.

Niagara combines eight processing cores on a single piece of silicon, and each core can execute four simultaneous sequences called threads. Sun believes a single Niagara machine will be able to replace several independent machines.

In contrast, the UltraSparc IIIi+, which had been scheduled to arrive in 2005, has a single processing core that can execute a single thread. It will be used to update current low-end Sparc servers such as the V440, V240 and V210.

Sun doesn't have the resources to simultaneously test and qualify servers using both processors, Ingram said. In particular, government requirements called "reduction of hazardous substances" is requiring Sun and its suppliers to switch many new electronic components that must be retested, he said.

Niagara doesn't necessarily execute a single task faster than more-conventional processors, but it's designed to rapidly switch from one task to another so the chip can stay gainfully occupied while one task waits to fetch data from relatively slow memory. The result is that it can perform more tasks at the same time, giving it 15 times the "throughput" of an UltraSparc IIIi processor. The UltraSparc IIIi+, in contrast, will have only double the throughput.

Ingram hinted that Niagara might exceed that factor of 15. "The performance will be at least 15x. It might be even better," he said.

Niagara systems will have a single processor, but Sun plans different server models with various memory and expansion capacities, Ingram said.

Power consumption is a big part of the Niagara sales pitch.

The processor consumes 56 watts of power, Sun has said. Opterons consume 95 watts, and Xeons consume between 90 and 130 watts, Brookwood said. "Everyone in data centers these days is focused on power," he said.

Also coming in the second half of this year are new high-end systems with the UltraSparc IV+, a sequel to the current UltraSparc IV. Those systems could help lagging high-end system sales that have hurt Sun of late, Ingram said.

Sun also plans to release Opteron-based systems in the second half. High-end servers have great profit margins but don't ship in large volume; low-end servers have the opposite properties, but the Opteron machines will be comfortably in between, Ingram said.

"That's the sweet spot," Ingram said. "That's where Sun has always made most of its money."