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Sun buys start-up to boost UltraSparc

Sun Microsystems has a lot riding on its UltraSparc line, but it's hoping its acquisition of Afara Websystems in July will help bolster the heart of its business.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems has signed an agreement to acquire chip design start-up Afara Websystems to bolster the UltraSparc processors at the heart of its business, a Sun executive said Tuesday.

Afara, headquartered in San Jose, Calif., and backed by Sequoia Capital and Raza Foundries, had been working on a Sparc-compatible processor that boosts Internet data transfer speed and quality. The acquisition is expected to close in July, said David Yen, currently general manger of Sun's Processor Products Group but next in line to be promoted to executive vice president for processor products and network security products. He spoke with reporters Tuesday.

Yen declined to detail acquisition terms or what Sun found interesting about the start-up, but he said the Afara technology will be incorporated into Sun's Sparc processors and that Sun will absorb Afara's engineering team.

Sun, the leading company in the lucrative market for Unix servers, has a lot riding on its UltraSparc line. Yen spotlighted several other aspects of Sun's plans Tuesday.

As reported, Sun's coming UltraSparc IV processor will run at speeds between 1.2GHz to 2GHz and will work in existing servers, Yen said. The UltraSparc V, with a dual personality to handle different types of workloads, will run from 1.8GHz to beyond 3GHz and will work only in new servers.

Yen said the UltraSparc IV will be manufactured using tiny circuitry built on a 130-nanometer manufacturing process, while UltraSparc will use a 90-nanometer process. The nanometer measurement refers to the minimum size of components inside a chip. Smaller components are closer together, and it takes less time for data to move through and among them.

Sun, based in Santa Clara, Calif., faces tremendous competition in the market for servers, the large networked computers that handle chores such as managing corporate financial accounts or constructing and sending Web pages to Internet browsers. IBM, the overall leader in servers, is applying sustained pressure on Sun's Unix server stronghold, while products from Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer and IBM based on Intel processors have encroached on Sun's low-end systems.

Facing the imminent arrival of Intel's Itanium 2 processor, expected in July, Sun is taking the offensive, breaking out the "road map" and showing some of what it has planned. Computing companies use such forward-looking road maps to convince customers, software companies, industry analysts and others that they have strong product plans.

Sun didn't release a schedule for the UltraSparc improvements, but Yen said it's unlikely that 90-nanometer fabrication technology will be available before the end of 2003 or early 2004. And even then, Sun plans to move other, "less challenging" designs to the new manufacturing processes first, he said.

Sun designed the original Sparc chips, but the chip's specifications are owned by the Sparc International nonprofit organization and available for anyone who spends the $90 licensing fee, Yen said. Afara was one such licensee.

The challenge facing Sun and other chip designers is how to best use the increasing amounts of circuitry that can be squeezed onto a slice of silicon as manufacturing processes permit ever-smaller electronics, Yen said.

Better than IBM, Intel?
IBM's coming Power5 and Power6 processors will build more features currently handled by software into the processor, but Yen said that approach has drawbacks because it forces the chip to become too specialized.

However, Sun does agree with some IBM design principles. It will move networking and encryption tasks now handled by software into the chip. And Sun will put multiple processors, often called "cores," on a single slice of silicon, a feature IBM pioneered for server processors with its Power4, which debuted in 2001.

"You will see multicore in our processor design...where it looks like a good choice," Yen said.

Intel, with its Itanium chip, is emphasizing the ability to run many instructions simultaneously, or "in parallel," but Yen said that approach is risky because it requires heavy software optimization to feed the chip conveniently packaged instructions.

"We strongly feel UltraSparc V has an architecture which is more flexible and therefore superior to the Intel Itanium architecture, which was really motivated by late 1970s high-performance computing," Yen said. In that era, the basic assumption was a "maximum amount of parallelism," he said.

Highlighting lower-end UltraSparcs
Sun is best known for its high-end UltraSparc "s" line for large multiprocessor systems, but the company offers "i" systems for midrange servers and "e" systems for lower-end products. However, Sun is working on a new branding plan to make the lesser processors more prominent.

"In order to support Sun's very wide system product portfolio, from the under-$1,000 low-end desktop or thin servers all the way to the multimillion-dollar mainframe class servers...we are developing a spectrum of processors with different trade-off points," Yen said.

One key product is the UltraSparc IIIi, which likely will debut later this year. Where the UltraSparc III has 8MB of high-speed "cache" memory, the IIIi will have a smaller but faster 1MB cache that's on the same silicon as the chip instead of packaged separately, Yen said.

Badmouthing benchmarks
Yen said Sun is working to try to create measurements that better represent its chips' performance. Clock speed just isn't sufficient, he said, and neither are the current processor benchmarks from the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation--of which Sun is a member.

Intel trumpeted high SPECint2000 and SPECfp2000 measurements for its coming Itanium 2 processor.

But SPEC's tests no longer represent real-world performance, Yen said. In part, that's because the entire test software package now can fit into a chip's high-speed cache memory, rendering obsolete the need to fetch data from slower main memory. In real life, though, servers often have to use main memory.

Customers "are not going to get the kind of performance they expected from reading the SPEC" benchmarks, Yen said.

Sun's current UltraSparc III processors arrived much more slowly than the company had hoped, with consequent delays for the UltraSparc IV and V successors. But Sun's servers remain on top of the Unix server market; ample amounts of high-end software are written for them; and the company's profit margins are edging up as the retirement of most older UltraSparc II servers simplifies manufacturing and inventory.

Although it's about to add servers based on Intel processors to its stable, Sun is a staunch advocate of its UltraSparc processors, the single most important component of its multibillion-dollar business selling high-powered computers. Sun has more than 1,400 designers working on its Sparc processors.

Though Sun systems lead the Unix server market, UltraSparc processors aren't tops in performance. "I don't think Sun sells on the basis of performance," said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "The key issue for Intel is that Sun has such a substantial share of the market that Sun is a safe choice" for software companies deciding which processors to support.

Clock speed isn't everything
Intel, which always has been a leader in the race for faster processor clock rates, rose to its current status selling PCs but is increasingly emphasizing server and networking gear chips. Compared with PCs, those higher-performance systems have more discriminating buyers who recognize there's more to overall system performance than chip clock speed, including factors such as how fast data can be transferred within the system and how many instructions a chip can execute in a single tick of its clock.

But Intel, with the NetBurst design in its Pentium 4 processors and their close Xeon relatives for servers, has emphasized clock speed more than ever. The company's argument is that NetBurst lays a foundation for steady clock speed advancement that frees designers to improve performance in other areas.

Xeons for dual-processor workstations run today at 2.4GHz, while multiprocessor models top out at 1.6GHz.

Lower-profile chips
Sun also is working on lesser but still important chips than the flagship UltraSparc III, IV and V.

For higher-end systems that ship in larger quantities than top-end products, Sun plans to introduce soon the UltraSparc IIIi at 1.1GHz and growing to 1.6GHz. Its successor will be the UltraSparc IVi, running from 1.1GHz to 2GHz.

For lower-end "horizontal" systems that typically are bought in even larger quantities but don't cost as much, Sun will sell the UltraSparc IIIi from 1.1GHz to 1.4GHz before phasing in a "next generation" i series processor running from 1.5GHz to beyond 3GHz.

The UltraSparc II line will live on longest in the "e" line of processors, used in Sun's slimmest servers and low-end workstations. The present 700MHz IIe will eventually be replaced by other IIe chips running at 900MHz to 1.1GHz, at which point next-generation "e" line products will be phased in running at speeds between 1GHz and 2GHz.

Though Sun aims products such as its new four-processor V480 "Cherrystone" at Intel servers, much of its competition comes from IBM and HP Unix servers. IBM's p630, to be introduced Tuesday, brings its Power4 processor to comparatively inexpensive systems costing well under $50,000. HP, long the leader in midrange Unix servers, is hoping its partnership with Intel on Itanium systems will give it a major cost advantage over the likes of Sun.

Texas Instruments builds the UltraSparc processors Sun designs.