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Sun dual-Niagara servers due in 2008

Multithread frenzy takes another step at Sun: "Victoria Falls" chip will mean 128 threads in a single server. Video: Sun CEO looks to future

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems has finished the design of "Victoria Falls," a Niagara 2 processor variation for servers with two of the multicore chips, and plans to begin shipping the machines in the first half of 2008.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company, after years of lackluster chip designs, overhauled its processor strategy with multicore chips that cram numerous processing engines onto each slice of silicon. Servers with first-generation eight-core Niagara chips, formally called UltraSparc T1, have been on sale for a year.

The Niagara 2 successors are due to start shipping in servers in the second half of 2007, Sun has said. But at its analyst summit here Tuesday, the company confirmed plans for the Victoria Falls variation for dual-processor servers and showed a 1.75-inch-thick prototype server using the chips.

CEO Jonathan Schwartz tells the Sun analyst conference in San Francisco that users want all their services and data on the network.

"We have silicon back (from manufacturer Texas Instruments) and Victoria Falls systems running in the labs at Sun at full speed, full performance," John Fowler, executive vice president of systems, said via Webcast Tuesday. "In the first half of calendar 2008, we will introduce products based on Victoria Falls."

Sun has shown some success with its new Sparc systems, which have sold to the tune of more than $100 million for each of the last three quarters. That's important for a company trying to restore not only its financial fortunes but also its reputation as a leading-edge designer.

David Yen, formerly Sun's Sparc server chief but now in charge of its storage business, said in 2005 that Sun planned multiprocessor Niagara systems. But the company had been mum about the idea for more than a year.

Compared with older-generation UltraSparc IIIi-servers, the first-generation Niagara systems have 14 times the performance. The single-chip Niagara 2 systems will have 35 times the performance, and the Victoria Falls systems will have 65 times the performance, Sun said.

Sun measures performance in terms of "throughput"--how many transactions are completed in a given amount of time. The Niagara chips are designed for this approach: Each of the eight cores can execute four simultaneous instruction sequences called threads.

Niagara 2 can execute eight threads per core, for 64 threads total per chip. That means the Victoria Falls systems can execute 128 threads per 1.75-inch system, Fowler said, or more than 5,000 threads in a rack of servers.

Sun is the most aggressive advocate of multicore chips and of multithreading. In comparison, IBM's Power5+ and Power6 processors and Intel's Xeon and Itanium processors have four threads per processor, while Advanced Micro Devices' "Barcelona," due in coming months, will match that number. Those chipmakers, though, emphasize faster performance of individual threads.

While Niagara systems emphasize running many threads simultaneously, the high-end "Rock" chip design is geared to execute an individual thread quickly as well. Rock, with 16 cores, is due to ship in systems in the second half of 2008, Sun said last month. The company has not said how many threads each core can execute.

Niagara blade servers will go on sale in the first half of 2007, Fowler said, and Victoria Falls blade servers will follow in the first half of 2008.

Sun also is working on a partnership with Fujitsu, which has its own line of Sparc chips. This partnership, called the Advanced Product Line (APL), was supposed to bear fruit in 2006, but was delayed.

Sun and Fujitsu customers now have APL products in testing, Fowler said. The products will be generally available in the first half of 2007 and will offer 1.5 times the performance of today's servers using Sun's UltraSparc IV+ processor, Fowler said. Rock systems will offer 16 times the performance.

Fowler and Sun Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz also touted Sun's virtualization technology, which lets a single server run multiple operating systems to increase efficiency and, eventually, to make data centers more responsive to changing work loads. Virtualization, Schwartz said, restores a priority lost in recent years when large numbers of low-end servers proliferated in computing.

"Virtualization is an apology from the IT industry," Schwartz said during his opening presentation at the conference. "We blew it, because we allowed you to run systems at 15 percent utilization. That may be good in the short run"--because Sun can sell lots of servers--"but in the long run that doesn't help anybody."

Sun has a variety of virtualization technologies available, including "containers" to make one Solaris operating system instance appear to be many, and "logical domains" to accommodate several independent operating systems.

Some have asked Schwartz if virtualization threatens server companies whose customers won't have to buy as many servers. But Schwartz argues customers want to buy efficient products.

If a server maker offers doubled server utilization rates, "will the customer buy a half a computer? No, if you double utilization, people buy twice the number of your computers," he said.