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Sun looks to chip performance to bring brighter days

Beleaguered server firm is working on a series of higher-performance processors it hopes will get profits back on track.

Sun Microsystems wants to distinguish its future servers by fitting them with new chips that get their jobs done more efficiently.

The computer maker got that ball rolling with its UltraSparc IV chip, a dual-core processor that came out in March and now ships in about 50 percent of Sun's high-end Sun Fire servers, according to Sun executives who spoke at an informal press briefing Friday afternoon.

Sun plans to offer the UltraSparc IV chip, which had been reserved for high-end Sun Fire servers, in new four- and eight-processor Sun Fire servers this month. Right now the company's Sun Fire v480 and v880 offer four and eight UltraSparc III chips and start at about $20,000 and $33,000, respectively. But adding the UltraSparc IV chips, each of which can handle two simultaneous threads, or streams of data, will boost their performance by about 50 percent, said Andy Ingram, vice president of marketing for Sun's Scalable Systems Group. Thus, the new four-processor Sun Fire server will perform like a Sun Fire v880 with eight-processors but offer roughly the same cost and footprint of the current four-processor machines.

"It's safe to say that...what you'll get with the upgrade is the footprint and cost of a four-way (server) and the throughput of an 8-way system," he said.

Sun, which made public a few additional details on the forthcoming chips on Friday, aims to amplify that example with its future processors, all of which include multiple cores and capabilities to handle many more threads. The beleaguered company is hoping to percolate higher-performance throughout its server line as it looks to return to steady profitability and compete with the likes of fellow system builders, including IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

UltraSparc IV and its descendant, the UltraSparc IV+, due next year, will be the first in the series of new processor offerings, which Sun plans to deliver over the next four years. The company will first boost the clock speed of the UltraSparc IV before moving to a new 90-nanometer design for UltraSparc IV+ next year. The collective improvements are expected to double the chip's performance, Ingram said. Then, during 2006, Sun will bring out two new processors, another dual-core, dubbed Olympus, and a multicore chip capable of handling 32-threads, called Niagara. Rock, designed to be a high-end chip for speeding up applications such as databases, will arrive in 2008, Ingram said.

It wasn't an easy road to Olympus, though. Sun, which has been grappling with three years of revenue declines and several rounds of layoffs--although it posted a fiscal fourth quarter profit in July--canceled its UltraSparc V project to work with Fujitsu on Olympus.

Olympus will feature dual cores and is essentially combining two Fujitsu UltraSparc chips into one. Meanwhile, Niagara is being designed for applications such as Web servers, and with its multiple cores it will be able to handle 32 threads simultaneously, Ingram said. A second version of the chip, Niagara 2, will be even more specialized for such applications, he said. A 65-nanometer process will be used to manufacture Niagara 2, meaning it should arrive sometime in 2008.

Rock will also be capable of 32-threads, but it will be geared more toward databases and applications that require more floating point or number crunching capability, he said. The 65-nanometer process will be used for Rock as well.

Sun faces stiff competition from the likes of IBM, whose high-end servers run on dual-core Power5 chips, and also Intel, which plans to deliver a dual-core Itanium chip in 2005.

Thus Sun aims to deliver chips that can handle more threads, boosting their performance for applications that its main customers use most often, including Web or application servers and applications such as databases, Ingram explained. Assuming the chips live up to expectations, Sun will be able to tout higher performance and at the same time potentially solve some other puzzles as well, including price for performance and power consumption.

Using more-powerful multicore chips could enable Sun to offer similar or greater performance with fewer chips in a given server. Although a multicore chip might consume more power, be harder to cool and cost more than a given single-core chip, the need for fewer multicore chips could offset all those factors, Ingram explained.

Indeed, although a single Rock chip might consume more power than another chip, it might take only one to replicate the performance of one of Sun's current Sun Fire E25K servers, which uses up to 72 UltraSparc IV chips, he said.

"By doing that, for a given physical investment of power, cooling, space and cost, I get more throughput," or performance, he said. "There's lots of room for innovation where we can increase performance and drive down cost and power and heat dissipation issues through system design. We have to be willing to take a risk and think differently."

Sun also sells a line of servers based on AMD's Opteron processor and another with Intel Xeon chips.