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Sun taps new source for low-end chips

The server giant taps Taiwanese chipmaker United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) to build some of its low-end CPUs currently made by Texas Instruments.

Server giant Sun Microsystems has tapped Taiwanese chipmaker United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) to build some of its low-end CPUs currently made by Texas Instruments, but products from the new alliance won't emerge for months.

UMC, a contract chipmaker, will build versions of Sun's UltraSparc IIe "Hummingbird" chip, said Sue Kunz, director of marketing and business development for Sun's processor products group. The chip is used in Sun workstations and low-end servers and in networking equipment from other companies who buy Sun's chips.

"As we look at (reusing) some of the older technology (in) lower-cost products, we look at alternative (manufacturers) who can provide the cost reduction we need," Kunz said. "We wouldn't do something like this with a high-end processor like the UltraSparc III."

Higher-end Sun products use the UltraSparc IIs and IIi chips, which have more features but are more expensive to manufacture. Sun is in the midst of a transition to the newer UltraSparc III chip.

The project to have UMC build the CPUs began more than six months ago, Kunz said. Currently, Sun and UMC are testing how well the manufacturing process works. "Hopefully, in the fall, we'll know more," she said.

Texas Instruments, which currently builds the IIe line, will continue to be Sun's source for high-end chips, Kunz said. She said she doesn't expect the relationship with UMC to extend beyond the lower-end line.

Texas Instruments didn't immediately return requests for comment.

Sun has had problems in getting the new UltraSparc III to work at 900MHz. Current CPUs work at 750MHz, but Sun was forced to delay the transition to 900MHz chips because TI's manufacturing process wasn't producing enough usable chips. The faster chips are expected to arrive in servers this summer, while analysts predict 1GHz models will arrive by the end of the year.

The transition is going better now, she indicated. "We get data every week. Everything I've seen looks really good," Kunz said. "We've had some pretty high-speed parts since December in the lab."

Sun has relied before on UMC, Lucent Technologies, LSI Logic and others to build chips that go into computers, but this is the first time Sun has used UMC to built a CPU--the main chip inside a computer. Sun has "occasionally" used other companies to build low-end CPUs, she said.

Those test results will determine which models of the UltraSparc IIe will be built at UMC, she said. Variations among IIe chips include different speeds and features such as built-in support for communication with the PCI data pathway.

In addition to TI's difficulties with the UltraSparc chip, Sun has had problems of its own with the chip design. Because of a problem the chip could have in rare circumstances, Sun distributed a repair that diminishes the chip's mathematical calculation speed by about 5 percent.

Chips such as the UltraSparc IIe for the "embedded" market are used in devices such as network routers, storage equipment and "firewall" computers that protect company networks. Sun competes with other companies such as MIPS and Motorola in the market.