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Sun: Niagara sequel more power-efficient

Niagara 2 will consume 70 to 80 watts running flat out, plus it handles more chores than today's Niagara 1.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems has been touting the efficiency of servers using its first-generation UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor, but it's promising greater gains with the chip's sequel.

The first Niagara consumes about 70 watts running flat out. Sun now thinks Niagara 2 will consume between 70 and 80 watts, John Fowler, executive vice president of systems, said in a meeting with reporters at Sun offices here Tuesday.

Although that power consumption is "just a teeny bit above Niagara 1," Fowler said, the newer chip absorbs several functions that today require separate electronics and also can handle 64 simultaneous instruction sequences, called threads--twice that of Niagara 1.

Niagara 2's built-in features include 10-gigabit-per-second networking, including full-speed encryption, PCI Express communications and four memory controllers. It's an example of the trend toward "system on a chip."

On the flip side, the chip requires FB-DIMM (fully buffered dual inline memory modules), a more power-hungry technology than the DDR2 (double data rate 2) memory used in today's Niagara servers. Memory, in fact, will determine whether a complete Niagara 2 system will consume more than a Niagara 1 system.

"Systems with larger memory will be above. With smaller memories, Niagara 2 systems will burn less," Fowler said.

Sun released its first Niagara-based servers a year ago and currently sells more than $100 million of the systems per quarter. The Niagara 2 models are due to arrive in the second half of 2007. Both systems are on the front lines of Sun's battle to restore the relevance and market position it lost when the dot-com bubble popped.

Sun's priority on energy efficiency isn't unique. Among the other three major server companies, IBM and Hewlett-Packard have touted technology to monitor and throttle energy usage in data centers, while Dell introduced a power-efficient server line Monday.

The first Niagara chips don't handle mathematical operations using "floating-point" numbers well, with eight processing cores sharing one floating-point engine, but Niagara 2 "fixes that" with one floating-point unit per core, Fowler said.

"We will have pretty startling SPECfp numbers," he said, referring to a floating-point seed test. "There will be people who look at it for numerical computing. It will be quite exceptional in performance," he said, because it has eight floating-point units and high memory communication speeds.

Sun also is preparing Niagara 3, a system that extends the current Niagara design approach Sun calls chip multithreading.


Correction: This story incorrectly described the speed of Niagara 2's built-in networking. The chips support two direct network connections running at 10 gigabits per second.