Sun makes Niagara an open-source chip

Release of the chip's underlying design is intended to increase the relevance of the UltraSparc T1 processor line.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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In a bid to increase the relevance of its processor line, Sun Microsystems pledged Tuesday to make the underlying designs of its new UltraSparc T1 an open-source project.

The Sparc chip specifications have been available for years to those who pay a fee to licensing organization Sparc International. But now Sun plans to release not just the specifications, but also the design itself, written in the Verilog hardware description language, and an accompanying verification suite and simulation models.

Sun plans to release the information through a new group called OpenSparc in the first quarter of 2006 and will use a license approved by the Open Source Initiative, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company said during Tuesday's launch of the ambitious T1-based T1000 and T2000 servers.

Releasing the UltraSparc T1 details move is likely to appeal chiefly to academia, said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "I really think it may appeal to some researchers. It's really hard for me to imagine that a serious manufacturer would go off and make a product out of it," he said.

The abstract Verilog description is still a long way from a complete hardware design, Brookwood added. "It's about halfway between the point when you design something and you hand it off to the foundry" for a chip to be manufactured, he said.

The UltraSparc T1, code-named Niagara, is a major part of Sun's effort to restore waning enthusiasm for the company's Sparc line, which has lost market share to Power chips from IBM and x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices in recent years.

The open-source chip move is the latest step in Sun's effort to leave behind its reputation for being closed and proprietary. Sun took another step a week ago when it declared that all its software would become free and open source--all except the core Java software, that is.

Sparc chips are used chiefly in servers from Sun and Fujitsu, though they are also used occasionally in other products such as Scientific Atlanta's Explorer 8000 set-top box or Olympus' D-300 Zoom digital camera. However, Sparc hasn't come close to the ubiquity of chip families such as ARM or x86.

The most direct competitor, though, is IBM's Power family. IBM has several significant licensees, including Freescale Semiconductor and P.A. Semi, and Big Blue is trying to promote wider use through its Power.org licensing program.

Sun hopes the OpenSparc effort will lead to widespread use of the chip--a move that could benefit Sun. The company sells support for the Solaris operating system, which is the only real option for use with the chip today. But that could change in the long run: Sun, taking another page from the IBM playbook, said Tuesday it's "actively working with the open-source community to bring Linux and FreeBSD to the UltraSparc T1 platform."

Sun has high hopes for the move. "The program will yield more collaboration and cooperation around hardware design and is expected to help drive down the costs of implementing the design in different technologies while enabling bold new products to be brought to market," the company said in a press release.

Even if it falls short of those goals, OpenSparc will give Sun marketing fodder to knock Intel and IBM, while promoting its "sharing" agenda. And as with releasing its software for free, it's unlikely to come with a financial penalty.

"They see it as unlikely to have much downside," Brookwood said. "The upside is also unclear, but it's not going to cost them much to do it."