Sun aims to sharpen its tech edge

The company will outline this week the future of its UltraSparc processors and its data center management initiative.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read
Sun Microsystems will outline this week the future of its UltraSparc processors and its data center management initiative.

During its conference for analysts Monday and Tuesday, Sun is expected to articulate its strategy for fighting encroachment in the server hardware market by Intel-based rivals such as Dell Computer and for capitalizing on its Java programming language and Solaris operating system.

Central to Sun's plans are a redesign of its UltraSparc line, meant to leapfrog the competition, and software improvements that will lower the cost of data center operations, Greg Papadopoulos, Sun's chief technology officer, said at a briefing with reporters last week.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company will discuss plans to use the next generation of UltraSparc in blade servers that are expected to be released next year. The systems will exploit so-called "multicore" processor technology that Sun acquired from Afara Websystems last year.

A multicore-processor design allows a manufacturer to place more than one processing unit on a single silicon wafer, leading to more computing muscle and lower energy consumption. As previously reported, Sun will finish work on the UltraSparc IV chip in the second half of this year that etches two processors on a single slice of silicon.

With Sun's updated processors, the company will be able to create the "equivalent to a 32-way (symmetric multiprocessor) on a chip," said Papadopoulos. Because this multicore-processor technology is relatively immature, Sun will be deploying the chips on single-function servers, such as Web servers, rather than high-end servers that handle demands such as high transaction volume, he said.

Gordon Haff, an analyst at IT research firm Illuminata, said Sun's plans for multi-core processor design do not assure them a windfall in server business.

"There's the architecture and there are implementations. A good implementation, with big caches and fast clock speeds, can make up for and mask the difference between computing architectures," said Hoff, who noted that the underlying architecture of Intel's chips is outdated.

"But they're running (Intel chips) at three gigahertz. It isn't going to matter all that much that a processor half the speed theoretically has a somewhat better design."

IBM has already been using a dual-core architecture on its Power4 processor, and Intel is pursuing the same technology for its Itanium line of chips.

Although processor technology to handle computing tasks in parallel has been around for years, applications typically had to be written specifically to take advantage of a processor's ability to break up computing into several parallel processing tasks, or "threads." But as applications become less dependent on the underlying operating system and chip architecture, businesses will be able to more easily take advantage of multicore processors, Papadopoulos said.

"Developers should not be writing to operating systems," he said.

On the software side, Sun will detail plans to bundle its Java-based middleware with its Solaris operating system and improve the logical partitioning in Solaris. The partitioning capabilities, code-named Kevlar, will allow a single machine to effectively run several applications, each in its own dedicated subset of the operating system, to ensure better security and performance, Papadopoulos explained.

The briefing for analysts will also serve as a forum to describe the next phase of Sun's strategy for automating data center operations. Sun used the analyst conference last year to tout its N1 initiative to create a "network operating system" that would let companies allocate computing resources more flexibly, according to demand. The idea is to give administrators more control over the hundreds or thousands of servers and storage units in a data center in order to lower operating costs.

Sun will also seek to simplify the lives of system administrators and software developers with a program, code-named Orion, for bundling and releasing various software components on a regular schedule. Much like Sun releases updates to Solaris each quarter, Orion will serve as a "delivery vehicle" for Sun software, Papadopoulos said.

Included in Orion will be Solaris and the Sun ONE suite of Java server software and tools. Sun will test and certify that various versions of components, such as the network directory and Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) server software, function smoothly together.

Orion "promises interoperability of components and also simplifies operations," Papadopoulos said.

Although Sun was late to develop its own strategy for selling servers for the Linux operating system, Papadopoulos said that Sun will sharpen its focus on software for Intel's 32-bit processors, which run both Linux and Solaris.