Sun puts HotSpot on the hot seat

The company releases its HotSpot Java speedup technology today into an increasingly crowded field and decides to not charge for it.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Sun Microsystems released its HotSpot Java speedup technology today into an increasingly crowded field, changing its earlier plans and deciding to offer the technology for free.

HotSpot addresses a longstanding concern about Java technology: In exchange for Java's "write once, run anywhere" universality, Java adopters pay a heavy performance price. But HotSpot doubles Java performance compared to Sun's ordinary Java components, said Gina Centoni, director of platform product marketing at Java Software.

HotSpot improves the Java virtual machine (JVM)--the part of the software that allows Java code to run on a particular hardware and operating system.

HotSpot, however, has been delayed nearly 16 months, and competitors such as IBM, Compaq Computer, and TowerJ aren't standing still.

IBM announced its own fast and free Java technology two weeks ago, which is based on Sun's Java. Compaq also has licensed Java from Sun, but has developed its own Fast Java Virtual Machine, another free product. And TowerJ has its own, independently produced version of Java, and the company has entered into partnerships with Compaq and Data General.

The delay was caused by the complexity of the HotSpot science and technology, Sun executives said. "Some things turned out to be harder than we expected," said Jon Kannegaard, general manager of the Java platform at Sun.

Sun decided to give HotSpot away for free in response to requests by software companies, said Centoni. "The community was rather vocal as to what they needed," she said. Sun had said as recently as two months ago that it planned to charge for HotSpot.

Sun still will charge fees for companies that want to incorporate HotSpot into their operating systems, Kannegaard said.

HotSpot, like the products from IBM, Compaq, and TowerJ, is aimed at servers.

However, Sun has at least pondered the possibility of applying HotSpot technologies to "embedded" computer systems where the nitty-gritty computer workings are hidden from users. "HotSpot hasn't been adapted for the low-end space," Kannegaard said. "We don't have plans right now. We have theories, but we don't have a project."

HotSpot works by tackling three Java bottlenecks. First, it speeds up the execution time of the parts of software that run over and over. Second, it improves the "garbage collection" feature of Java that tidies up computer memory used by a Java program. And third, it improves how Java can split tasks up into several "threads" running on multiple-processor compeers.

Battle for the benchmarks
Sun posted a Specjvm98 speed of 31.1, Centoni said. That beats out Compaq's 29.1 score announced last week and the 22.6 score IBM announced two weeks ago.

But there's a catch.

In one sense, Sun is ahead of its high-speed Java competitors because HotSpot works with the latest Java 2 code. By contrast, IBM and Compaq still are at the previous version, 1.1.7. However, Sun saw performance gains going to Java 2, and Compaq expects to see them as well.

Compaq is working on updating to Java 2, and when it does its benchmark will well surpass Sun's 31.1 score, said Dan Gilfix, manager for Compaq's Tru64 Unix business.

HotSpot also will be changing. Sun also said today that the beta release of HotSpot 2 will be available in July, said Alan Baratz, president of Sun's Java software division.

Sun's future efforts will focus on the core HotSpot technology, the adaptive optimizer, which speeds up the portions of Java code that run frequently, said Larry Abrahams, director of core Java 2 development.