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Sun to unveil 600-MHz chip

Sun will unveil the Sparc-III microprocessor today, giving its workstation and server computers a leg up in the perennial battle for performance leadership.

Sun Microsystems (SUNW) today unveiled a new generation of processors that could reach upward of 600 MHz by next year, topping Intel in the chip performance game.

The new UltraSparc-III is the third generation of the Sparc family of processors, which serve as the brain for Sun's workstation computers and servers, and will allow Sun to build even more powerful systems.

Sun said that the microprocessor will run at speeds of 600 MHz by mid-1998, compared to the fastest Pentium II chip from Intel (INTC) which currently runs at 300 MHz. Even by next year, Intel, the world's largest chipmaker, only expects to top the 400-MHz plateau with its chips.

The UltraSparc-III chip is also scalable, which means that more chips can be added on to a single system and users would see an equivalent increase in processing power. Sun said with this new chip, it could build a computer with more than 1,000 processors, which would rival the fastest supercomputers.

Mountain View, California-based Sun said that with this processor, it will build servers for networked computers and Internet applications. For example, Web sites hosted on a Sun server with the UltraSparc-III can support more users simultaneously and will run faster.

The new processor won't be the first to hit the 600-MHz mark--Digital's Alpha processor is already being manufactured at these clock speeds. However, Sun's processor may significantly outperform its competitors, according to performance figures released by Sun.

An UltraSparc-III memory scored an estimated 35 and 60 on the widely used SPECint95 and SPECfp95 standards, respectively. The SPEC standards evaluate performance in business and scientific applications.

By comparison, Digital says the Alpha delivers estimated SPECint95 and SPECfp95 performance ratings of 18 and 27, while Intel says the 300-MHz Pentium II has performance ratings of 11.7 and 8.15. A 350-MHz PowerPC 604e has SPECint95 and SPECfp95 standards performance ratings of 14.6 and 9.0, according to IBM.

At least some of the performance can be attributed to the huge amount of secondary cache memory, which ensures the processor has a steady flow of information between the processor and other parts of the system, such as main memory. The UltraSparc-III will have 8MB of secondary cache memory, while Intel's Pentium Pro for servers and workstations today have up to 1MB of secondary cache.

The new UltraSparc will give Sun a boost in performance and allow the company to maintain a competitive performance edge over the Intel through the century, said Michael Slater, principal analyst for MicroDesign Resources, but the chip won't be out for some time.

"It won't be in systems for well over a year," Slater said, while offering the observation that "It's an impressive bit of technology."

Sun said it will begin to develop servers using the new processor in the summer of 1998, running its Solaris operating system, Sun's version of the UNIX operating system.

"Sun is committed to the concept of moving toward a fat server," said Jeff O'Neal, SPARC marketing manager, referring to servers that can store more and more data. "The technical design that's been done allows us to go to the next generation of fat servers."

Sun's new chip, designed using a 64-bit architecture, comes ten days before Intel and Hewlett-Packard are expected to disclose the first public details of their joint effort in next-generation 64-bit chip architecture, code-named Merced, at a conference next week.

Intel has said that its Merced chip would be in use in computers around the end of this century.

Reuters contributed to this report.