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Sun: 'Microprocessors are dead'

Today's microprocessors will become extinct by the end of the decade, to be replaced by computers built onto a single chip, Sun Microsystems' CTO says.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Today's microprocessors will become extinct by the end of the decade, to be replaced by computers built onto a single chip, Sun Microsystems Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos said Tuesday.

"Microprocessors are dead," Papadopoulos said, trying to provoke an audience of chip aficionados at the Microprocessor Forum here. As new chip manufacturing techniques converge with new realities about the software jobs that computers handle, central microprocessors will gradually assume almost all the functions currently handled by an army of supporting chips, he said.

Eventually, Papadopoulos predicted, almost an entire computer will exist on a single chip--not a microprocessor but a "microsystem." Each microsystem will have three connections: to memory, to other microsystems and to the network, Papadopoulos said.

He predicted that as more and more circuitry can be packed onto a chip, not just a single system but an entire network of systems will make its way onto a lone piece of silicon. He dubbed the concept "micronetworks."

Papadopoulos also described Sun's nearer-term processor vision, called "chip multithreading," in which a processor will quickly switch between several tasks, called "threads." The switch will take place when one thread runs into a bottleneck while trying to communicate with slow main memory.

Sun's views of the future are significant: For one thing, Sun is influential, having more than once successfully moved the computer industry in new directions--toward, for example, its own Java software technology and toward workstations using RISC processors. For another, the pressure exerted by a reawakened IBM and a powerful Intel means the company is under fierce pressure to produce chip designs relevant enough to keep customers from shifting their loyalties.

Despite Sun's current financial troubles, the company has made some analysts optimistic. "I think (Sun's) UltraSparc (processor) is doing a good job. I think it's going to do a greater job in the future," said Kevin Krewell, an analyst and general manager of MicroDesign Resources. Krewell was also bullish on Sun's throughput computing: "I think this is some technology to really keep an eye on," he said.

The ubiquity of networks is driving some of the changes, Papadopoulos said. In the past, the hardware to connect a computer to a network cost about $100. Now, it's a few dollars, and soon it will be just a few cents, he predicted.

Along with that, software is increasingly built as a collection of services available from many systems connected to the network rather than a monolithic application that runs on a single computer.

"Over the last decade, the shift in software has been palpable," Papadopoulos said, noting that it's been just 10 years since the Internet started taking off with the arrival of the Mosaic Web browser.

Replacing a hodgepodge of individual hardware systems are two software technologies, Papadopoulos said: Java, invented by Sun; and .Net, invented by Microsoft. Those types of software services typically require hardware that juggles many threads simultaneously, he said.

"Things have changed really rather markedly in the past decade in the work loads we're asking these machines to support," Papadopoulos said.

Also at the conference, Sun released details of its UltraSparc IV chip, code-named Jaguar and due to arrive in systems in the first half of 2004. Sun expects the chip, a "dual core" design with two processors etched into a single slice of silicon, to boost performance over UltraSparc III by a factor of 1.6 to 2.0.

A second version of the UltraSparc IV, built with a more advanced manufacturing process, will double that performance again, said Quinn Jacobson, chief architect of UltraSparc IV. That further improvement will come from faster electronics; the inclusion of new, high-speed cache memory on the chip; and faster mechanisms for fetching information from that cache.

Fujitsu's view
Sun is the most noted inventor of processors that use the Sparc instruction set, but it's not the only one. Fujitsu's Primepower server line uses its own Sparc64 processors along with Sun's Solaris operating system.

Fujitsu is doing "phenomenal design work," Krewell said. "Their time to market is extremely good."

Fujitsu's Takumi Maruyama, manager of the company's E Processor development work, described the next-generation Sparc64 VI, code-named Olympus and due to arrive in the second half of 2005.

Maruyama said the Sparc64 VI is a dual-core design that will debut at speeds faster than 2.4GHz. It will be built by way of a manufacturing process that uses electronics with features that measure 90 nanometers. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter; today's high-end chips are built with 130-nanometer features. New manufacturing processes with smaller feature sizes enable chip designers to pack more circuitry onto a chip.)

The Sparc64 VI will also have the ability to run two threads in each processor core, Marayuma said. Overall, he predicted performance would increase by a factor of four over the current Sparc64 V generation, which runs at 1.35GHz.

The Sparc64 VI is working in Fujitsu's lab today at 2GHz, Maruyama said.