Sun kills UltraSparc V, Gemini chips

Sun Microsystems discontinues development of the two planned chips as it retrenches in a difficult era for the company.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Sun Microsystems has discontinued development of two planned chips as it retrenches in a difficult era for the company.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun has stopped work on the UltraSparc V, a server chip that was supposed to come out late next year, and Gemini, a dual-core chip for Web servers, a company spokeswoman confirmed.

"In order to get back to profitability, we have to make some difficult choices," the spokeswoman said.

The untimely death of the UltraSparc V and Gemini will in some ways simplify Sun's future and its throughput computing initiative, which seeks to boost data throughput in processors.

Under the new strategy, Sun will concentrate on powering its servers with derivatives of the UltraSparc IV, which came out earlier this year, for the near term. One coming derivative, currently known as the UltraSparc IV+ will have an integrated high-speed cache for rapid data access.

Then, in late 2006 and 2007, the company will release Niagara, a multicore, multithreaded chip. Niagara will begin to trickle across the Sun server line. The chip is based on technology acquired from Afara, but it will be compatible with Solaris, Sun's operating system. Sun also has another multicore chip, called Rock, coming out around the same time.

The UltraSparc V, which was based on a different design than the UltraSparc IV, would have required Sun and its customers to adopt, and then phase out, an entirely new chip in the course of a few years. Server customers tend to try to minimize technology transitions.

Gemini, meanwhile, was something of an anomaly. The chip, due this year, consisted of two UltraSparc II cores, a chip core Sun hasn't advanced since 1999. Partly, the chip existed as a way for Sun to demonstrate it could manufacture a two-core chip, something the company demonstrated with the UltraSparc IV.

On the other hand, the cancellation underscores the difficulties Sun has been facing in the difficult world of chipmaking. Sun processors have steadily fallen behind the performance seen in chips from IBM, Intel and others during the past several years, according to several analysts and benchmark testers. The company has also had to regularly delay products. Intel and others have delayed products too, but they've been able to gain market share nonetheless.

"They were very late with the UltraSparc III. That was due in 2000, and it didn't really make it into the product line until 2002," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. "This puts a little more pressure on the Niagara and Rock people. They can't afford a delay."

Sun managed to get the UltraSparc IV out with less-extensive delays, but the chip isn't a complete original. It consists of two UltraSparc III cores.

The UltraSparc V and Gemini had reached advanced stages, although much work remained. The UltraSparc V had taped out, an expression that means the design was complete. (In the olden days, when engineers completed a chip design, they sent the computer tape out to other groups.)

Sun plans to lay off 3,300 employees, but many from the UltraSparc V and Gemini projects will remain at Sun, the spokeswoman said.