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Sun: New chip can double performance

Sun Microsystems says its upcoming UltraSparc IV processor will outperform its predecessor by a factor of 1.6 to 2, providing more competition to Intel, IBM, AMD and others.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
Sun Microsystems will announce Monday that its upcoming UltraSparc IV processor will outperform its predecessor by a factor of 1.6 to 2, providing more competition to Intel, IBM, Advanced Micro Devices and others.

At this week's Microprocessor Forum in San Jose, Calif., the company will announce that it expects to begin making UltraSparc IV later this year, and it will debut at a speed of 1.2GHz in products by June 2004, said Andy Ingram, vice president of Sun's processor marketing group.

UltraSparc IV packs two UltraSparc III processor cores onto a single slice of silicon. IBM used a similar technique to make its Power 4 processor, and Intel plans to follow suit with its Xeon and Itanium chips. Sun's chip will be able to plug into the same sockets as an UltraSparc III, meaning customers can upgrade their computers rather easily.

Although Sun is remaking itself as a supplier of integrated collections of hardware, software and services, new chips remain an essential foundation for the company's products. UltraSparc IV should be fast enough to retain Sun's most loyal customers, said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood.

"This keeps Sun in the running," Brookwood said. "I don't know that UltraSparc IV by itself is going to persuade people...to switch to Sun, but it should keep those already in the tent (staying) in the tent."

Sun has been challenged by the arrival of increasingly powerful processors from Intel and was forced to abandon its UltraSparc-only approach by using "x86" processors such as Xeon and Itanium from Intel and Athlon from AMD. Indeed, Sun will rely on these outside chips, said David Yen, executive vice president of Sun's processor and network products group.

The latest performance figure compares computing tasks running on a 1.2GHz UltraSparc IV and a 1.2GHz UltraSparc III, Ingram said. "Over the life of UltraSparc IV, we should yet again double throughput, at least at the processor level," he said.

Performance improvements are critical for Sun, RedMonk analyst James Governor said. "When it comes to chips, they have been getting hammered. Just in terms of raw power, they are behind," he said.

Like Intel with Itanium, Sun has missed deadlines for shipping some chips, but its record is improving, Brookwood said.

The first UltraSparc IV will be built using a 130-nanometer manufacturing process, but a newer version expected next year will use a 90-nanometer technique, Sun said. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. Manufacturers keep building chips with smaller elements, so they can squeeze more circuitry onto the same-size chip.)

Best buddies
At this week's show, Sun and Texas Instruments will celebrate the 15-year anniversary of their partnership. TI is helping to engineer the 90-nanometer UltraSparc chips, said Julie England, the Texas Instruments vice president responsible for the Sun work.

"With Sun, we're in the middle of sampling product now," England said. "By the fourth quarter of next year, we hope to be ready to ramp to volume."

Sun plans to add new reliability features with the 90-nanometer chip, Ingram said. Further improvements, such as the incorporation of circuitry to accelerate encryption and networking, will be offered in future versions.

The 90-nanometer manufacturing process will use a technology called strained silicon to wring more speed out of the chips, England said. In addition, it will use a technology called "low-k dielectric" more widely than current chips and will push one key measurement, the length of a fundamental circuit component called a gate, down to 37 nanometers.

One tangible improvement with the 90-nanometer process: Each transistor in the chip can switch off or on 50 percent faster than with 130 nanometers, English said.

The size of the UltraSparc IV die is 356 square millimeters, Sun said. That compares with 374 square millimeters for the high-end Itanium 2 with 6 megabits of cache memory and 267 square millimeters for the Power4+.

Smaller chips are less expensive to manufacture and consume less power.

A new direction
Sun's chip design plans have changed dramatically since the acquisition of Afara Websystems, a start-up that employed some original UltraSparc I designers.

Sun previously had been focusing on executing instructions as fast as possible on a chip, a task made difficult by the inevitable delay of communicating with a computer's main memory. Chip designers have compensated by adding ever larger amounts of higher-speed cache memory to store frequently used information, but that's an approach that makes the chip much larger and more expensive.

With the Afara technology, Sun has taken a new approach that emphasizes running several tasks, or "threads," simultaneously, switching to a new thread when one runs into the memory bottleneck.

Though it has yet to be proven with real-world designs, Sun's new approach is a compelling way to deal with the problem of memory delay, called latency, Insight 64's Brookwood said. "They've started tackling latency in a very positive way," he said. "Instead of trying to paper over latency with bigger and bigger caches, they're saying, 'Let's design a chip that says latency is a fact of life and makes the best of it.'"

The first Afara processor, code-named Niagara, will arrive in 2005 or 2006. It's designed for lower-end servers that handle chores such as serving Web pages. A still-unnamed higher-end processor will be able to handle individual tasks quickly as well as juggle between multiple ones.

The brand name for this post-UltraSparc V processor has yet to be determined, Ingram said. Ingram said that processor will combine chip technology from today's UltraSparc lineage, Afara and the MAJC that Sun years ago had hoped would succeed UltraSparc.

Elsewhere in chipdom
Several other chipmakers will use the Microprocessor Forum stage to discuss new processors for servers and other kinds of computers.

Fujitsu will discuss the latest addition to its family of SPARC64 chips, the SPARC64 VI. The chip represents Fujitsu's latest spin on the Sparc processor architecture.

IBM will make a presentation on its Power 5 processor for high-end servers that is due out next year.

Transmeta and Via Technologies will also join the forum to unveil details on PC processors. Transmeta will use the forum to launch its Efficeon processor, a new chip for notebook PCs. Via will discuss two new processors, according to the Microprocessor Forum's Web site.