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Sun completes 'Niagara' chip design

The server maker wraps up design work on the processor, a crucial product in its effort to keep its UltraSparc chip family competitive, a source familiar with the project says.

Sun Microsystems has completed the design of its "Niagara" processor, a crucial product in the server maker's effort to keep its UltraSparc chip family competitive, a source familiar with the project said.

Sun acquired the Niagara design when it bought start-up Afara Websystems in 2002. The processor is an element of Sun's UltraSparc family--an increasingly important part after Sun canceled two other UltraSparc models and embraced the rival "x86" chip lineage of Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

The company "taped out" the Niagara design Tuesday, meaning that its design is done and has been sent to the chip fabrication facility for prototypes to be built and tested, the source said. A Sun representative confirmed the milestone. Typically, at least a year is required after tape-out to fix manufacturing and other issues before a chip actually can be used in a server.

Niagara is notable for an unusual design that includes eight processing engines, or cores, each of which is capable of handling four instruction sequences called threads. Sun variously calls this approach "throughput computing" or "chip multithreading."

Niagara and a higher-end cousin code-named Rock are still under development, but Sun canceled development of two other chips this year: the low-end Gemini model with dual UltraSparc II cores and the high-end UltraSparc V.

At the same time, Sun is aggressively adopting AMD's Opteron processor. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company also is putting more emphasis on its software, which runs on both chip types and in the future also will run on competitors' servers with other processors.

Texas Instruments builds Sun's processors. UltraSparc chips compete chiefly with IBM's Power processors, Intel's Itanium processors and Hewlett-Packard's PA-RISC processors.