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Sun to push UltraSparc V past 3GHz

Sun's UltraSparc V, two generations out from the processor at the heart of the company's servers, will debut at 1.8GHz and extend past 3GHz, the company is set to disclose.

Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc V, two generations out from the newly introduced processor at the heart of the company's servers, will debut at 1.8GHz and extend past 3GHz, the company is expected to disclose Tuesday.

Facing the imminent arrival of Intel's Itanium 2 processor, Sun is taking the offensive by letting David Yen, general manager of Sun's Processor Products Group, uncloak some of the company's plans Tuesday. These future-looking "road maps" are a key part of computing companies' efforts to convince customers, software companies, industry analysts and others that a company such as Sun has strong product plans.

According to a presentation Yen is expected to make Tuesday, the UltraSparc III will reach 1.2GHz, a smidgen faster than the 1.05GHz products expected soon from Sun. UltraSparc IV then will debut at 1.2GHz and run to 2GHz. Sun didn't release a schedule for the improvements.

The UltraSparc V, designed to have a dual personality to handle different types of workloads, is set to debut at 1.8GHz and run beyond 3GHz.

Sun's current UltraSparc III processors arrived much more slowly than the company had hoped, with consequent delays for the UltraSparc IV and V successors. But Sun's servers remain on top of the Unix server market, ample amounts of high-end software is written for them, and the company's profit margins are edging up as the retirement of most older UltraSparc II servers simplifies manufacturing and inventory.

Although it's about to add servers based on Intel processors to its stable, Sun is a staunch advocate of its UltraSparc processors, the single most important component of its multibillion-dollar business selling high-powered computers. Sun has more than 1,400 designers working on its Sparc processors.

Though Sun systems lead the Unix server market, UltraSparc processors aren't tops in performance. "I don't think Sun sells on the basis of performance," said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "The key issue for Intel is that Sun has such a substantial share of the market that Sun is a safe choice" for software companies deciding which processors to support.

Intel, which always has been a leader in the race for faster processor clock rates, rose to its current status selling PCs but is increasingly emphasizing server and networking gear chips. Compared with PCs, those higher-performance systems have more discriminating buyers who recognize there's more to overall system performance than chip clock speed, including factors such as how fast data can be transferred within the system and how many instructions a chip can execute in a single tick of its clock.

But Intel, with the NetBurst design in its Pentium 4 processors and their close Xeon relatives for servers, has emphasized clock speed more than ever. The company's argument is that NetBurst lays a foundation for steady clock speed advancement that frees designers to improve performance in other areas.

Xeons for dual-processor workstations run today at 2.4GHz, while multiprocessor models top out at 1.6GHz.

Sun also is working on lesser but still important chips than the flagship UltraSparc III, IV and V.

For higher-end systems that ship in larger quantities than top-end products, Sun plans to introduce soon the UltraSparc IIIi at 1.1GHz and growing to 1.6GHz. Its successor will be the UltraSparc IVi, running from 1.1GHz to 2GHz.

For lower-end "horizontal" systems that typically are bought in even larger quantities but don't cost as much, Sun will sell the UltraSparc IIIi from 1.1GHz to 1.4GHz before phasing in a "next generation" i series processor running from 1.5GHz to beyond 3GHz.

The UltraSparc II line will live on longest in the "e" line of processors, used in Sun's slimmest servers and low-end workstations. The present 700MHz IIe will eventually be replaced by other IIe chips running at 900MHz to 1.1GHz, at which point next-generation "e" line products will be phased in running at speeds between 1GHz and 2GHz.

Though Sun aims products such as its new four-processor V480 "Cherrystone" at Intel servers, much of its competition comes from IBM and Hewlett-Packard Unix servers. IBM's p630, to be introduced Tuesday, brings its Power4 processor to comparatively inexpensive systems costing a well under $50,000. HP, long the leader in midrange Unix servers, is hoping its partnership with Intel on Itanium systems will give it a major cost advantage over the likes of Sun.

Texas Instruments builds the UltraSparc processors Sun designs.