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One late chip leads to another for Sun

While Sun Microsystems touts its new UltraSparc III chip, most of the company's attention is focused on its successor, the UltraSparc V, now expected to arrive two years later than scheduled.

! EDS: Update, 9/27, 1:15 pm PT. Changes hed and brief. Copyedits throughout. Use this version. --> Sun Microsystems said today that its next-generation UltraSparc V chip will arrive in 2003, two years later than earlier scheduled.

The chip is the successor to the UltraSparc III, the heart of Sun's new line of "Sun Fire" servers, launched in New York today. The UltraSparc III was delayed from its original late-1999 launch date, and the slipped schedule has affected the whole UltraSparc family tree.

Sun's original schedule put the arrival of UltraSparc V at the end of 2001, but an updated plan released today now calls for the debut to take place in the second half of 2003, said Fadhi Azhari, Sun's processor-group marketing manager. In addition, the UltraSparc IV, a relatively minor update to the UltraSparc III, was due in December of this year but now is scheduled to arrive in the second half of 2002, Azhari said.

The UltraSparc V design team is the largest within Sun, totaling about 200, Azhari said.

The schedule slips hurt Sun but are to be expected with any complex design, said MicroDesign Resources analyst Peter Glaskowsky. "It certainly would be better for their business if they could deliver faster processors sooner, but the Sun delays are merely the latest in a string of hundreds of companies that have been late delivering complex microprocessors," he said. "Hardly anybody does this on time."

Engineers often recognize the difficulty of introducing new designs, but marketing personnel, ever aware of competitive pressures, are likely to push schedules farther than is reasonable, he added.

The UltraSparc III arrived a year late, but the delay allowed Sun to boost the chip with new features and faster speeds, Azhari said.

The delays haven't hurt Sun's sales, which have risen to record levels each quarter on the UltraSparc II design. And analysts point out that Sun has emerged as one of the leading companies for building Internet sites and corporate computer systems.

Though Sun won't be moving to new processor designs as soon, the company has stuck close to its original plan for processor speeds. Instead of the UltraSparc V running at 1.5 GHz at the end of 2001, the UltraSparc III will achieve that rate, Azhari said.

The UltraSparc IV is planned to launch at a speed of 1.8 GHz, Azhari said. The UltraSparc V is conservatively expected to run at 2.1 GHz, Sun chief technology officer Greg Papadopoulos said at the UltraSparc III launch today.

Sun also released a host of details on the UltraSparc III, the company's second crack at a 64-bit CPU. The first design was used in the UltraSparc I and II chips. A 64-bit chip, which has yet to arrive from Sun's biggest chip rival, Intel, lets computers shuttle information in and out of the chip more quickly and lets a computer use vastly larger databases.

The UltraSparc III, debuting in today's systems at 600 and 750 MHz, will be revved up to 900 MHz in December, when Sun switches from aluminum interconnect technology to copper, Azhari said. Texas Instruments builds all of Sun's chips.

The UltraSparc III comes with a host of new features designed for faster, bigger and more crashproof computers.

For one thing, it has an onboard memory controller that lets each chip talk to up to 4GB of memory at a speed of 2.4 GB/sec, Azhari said. The chip also has a separate interconnection running at 4.8 GB/sec that lets it talk to other chips and the rest of the computer system.

Glaskowsky said onboard memory controllers are a good idea most chip companies are adopting. "It saves you precious clock cycles on all your memory transactions," he said. Transferring data between memory and a processor is a critical bottleneck for all computer systems, which feature fast CPUs that usually spend a lot of time waiting for data from memory.

The 4.8 GB/sec interconnect is also a good feature, Glaskowsky said. In particular, it reduces the time a processor will have to wait when transferring information to another processor or when tapping into remote memory. "They're right where they should be. It's a good number for a current-generation server processor," he said.

The fast interconnects and the onboard memory controller are designed to let Sun build systems with more CPUs, a feature in demand from companies buying large computers to run complex software such as that used to govern an auto manufacturer's parts and product inventory.

But Sun's multiple CPU architecture approach has its problems, Glaskowsky said.

"The fact that Sun needs more CPUs to get to a given level of performance is a disadvantage to Sun," he said. "It's more engineering effort to create a 16-processor server than an eight-processor server," and a disadvantage for customers who ultimately underwrite those research and development costs.

For better reliability, UltraSparc III comes with error-correction code (ECC) technology that catches glitches in transferring data between a CPU and its high-speed cache memory, Azhari said. In addition, the chips have an "uptime bus" that lets computers wall off a CPU that experiences an ECC error, letting the computer continue running without corrupted data spreading.

Another landmark looming on the horizon of every chip designer is silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology, which lets companies further reduce the size and power consumption of chips but requires a major overhaul of design techniques.

"We're looking at SOI, but I'm not sure it has the advantages that so many people are claiming," Azhari said.

IBM was the first to come up with SOI chips, and its new S80Turbo server--a competitor to be launched in October that will compete with Sun's high-end E10000 server--will come with SOI processors. In addition, IBM will build SOI chips for Hewlett-Packard's PA-8700 chip for Unix servers.

Sun also is working on a multimedia processor called MAJC that will be used in graphics cards, among other areas. The company has produced two generations of MAJC prototypes and has software running on the chips, Azhari said, but he declined to say when they would arrive.

The UltraSparc III also has technology to improve the execution of Java software, Sun said.

One source close to Sun, however, said new graphics cards using MAJC will arrive within the next year.