Sun shines light on chip plans

Taking a page from Intel's playbook, Sun reveals many of its future chip plans as part of an effort to illustrate why the company continues to push its own processors.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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SAN FRANCISCO--Taking a page from the Intel playbook, Sun Microsystems revealed on Tuesday many of its future microprocessor plans as part of an effort to illustrate why the company continues to push its own chips.

Sun has traditionally gone its own way with its servers, forsaking technology such as Intel processors and the Windows and Linux operating systems that most Sun competitors embraced. As that technology has improved and encroached further into Sun's market, many have criticized the company for shunning it or adopting it late.

But Sun began a counterattack Tuesday at its annual analyst conference here, shedding more light on its chip plans to show why it thinks its UltraSparc processors are worth buying now and in the future.

"We have not been sharing our future plans with you, so you don't see what we see," said David Yen, Sun's executive vice president for processors, saying the policy was responsible for analyst reports "indicating Intel has won...and Sparc no longer is relevant."

Changing that policy, Yen detailed several processors scheduled to arrive in coming years, including the UltraSparc IV and V models and the "throughput computing" technology acquired from Afara Websystems.

Sharing product plans--"road maps" in industry argot--is a good strategy for persuading customers that Sun is worth sticking with, said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. Advanced Micro Devices, Intel and IBM all share such plans, he said.

"Certainly I think it was important to be more open about it," Brookwood said.

Part of the decision to share the plans lay with Andy Ingram, who took over as Sun's vice president of marketing for processor products in 2002 and began studying Sun's detailed chip strategy.

"I looked at it and said, 'We're going to go public,'" Ingram said in an interview.

Intel describes many of its chip plans twice a year at its Intel Developer Forum conferences.

In the pipeline
Sun disclosed several specific processor plans at the conference Tuesday:

•  The UltraSparc IV processor, due later this year, has two cores etched onto the same slice of silicon. The chip will slip into existing servers with UltraSparc III processors.

•  A version of UltraSparc IV, code-named Gemini and designed for lower-end servers such as thin "blade" systems, is due in products to ship in 2004. Sun said earlier this month that blade servers with the dual-core UltraSparc processors should arrive in the first half of 2004. Gemini, like UltraSparc IV and the newest UltraSparc III, will be built using a 130-nanometer manufacturing process.

•  The UltraSparc V processor, due in 2005, will have "five times the performance of processors we have today," Yen said, and will have better features for data protection and use in massive multiprocessor machines. The chip also will be able to perform a host of new operations, called the VIS Instruction Set 3. Where previous VIS extensions accelerated media operations such as encoding video, VIS 3 will speed more general applications such as encrypting data, said Michael Splain, chief technologist of Sun's processor group.

UltraSparc V will be built on a 90 nanometer process. It will also feature the ability to switch between two different modes of operation: one designed for business computing jobs such as wrangling databases, the other for technical computing jobs such as modeling car crashes.

•  The first chips based on Sun's Afara acquisition will arrive in 2005 and will be built on a 90 nanometer process. The chips, code-named Niagara, sacrifice sophisticated abilities to run one task fast in favor of a simpler design that runs many tasks, or threads, simultaneously--a concept Sun calls "chip multi-threading" and that fits into its overall throughput computing plan.

Niagara also will have high-level Ethernet networking and encryption capabilities built into silicon, Splain said. Each Niagara chip will have eight "cores" that can independently run four threads, with much of Sun's secret sauce being in the rules that determine which thread is active, Splain said.

•  Sun will merge Niagara lineage with the UltraSparc lineage after 2005 in a processor 30 times faster than today's 1.2GHz UltraSparc III, Yen said. This new chip "will provide hardware features to do Java acceleration and will extensively utilize asynchronous circuitry," Yen said. Sun has been working for years on asynchronous chip designs in which different parts of a chip are governed by different clocks so the entire processor, with millions of transistors, doesn't have to march in lockstep.

Knocking Itanium
Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy was subdued at the conference Monday but resumed some of his trademark style Tuesday, jabbing at competitors. One target was Intel's Itanium processor, codesigned by Hewlett-Packard. The Itanium design tries too hard to execute one thread quickly, a strategy that suffers diminishing returns and requires too much circuitry, McNealy and other Sun executives argued.

"David Yen can beat Itanium. There's no question," McNealy said.

Sun Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos criticized Itanium's size and the fact that software written for widely used Pentium and Xeon chips has to be rewritten for Itanium.

"They can't physically fit two Itanium cores on the same die (silicon chip) until 2005. They're way behind," Papadopoulos said. And Intel didn't learn lessons from Digital Equipment and Motorola, which changed the set of instructions their processors understood when moving from VAX to Alpha and from the 68000 designs to the PowerPC designs, respectively.

McNealy also disparaged Hewlett-Packard for deciding to move away from its own PA-RISC processors.

"PA is a pretty interesting architecture, and we're glad they put a fork in it," McNealy said.

Sun has no regrets that it relies on Texas Instruments to build its microprocessors--especially as the transition to larger, 300mm silicon wafers puts more pressure on chipmakers to fill their factory capacity.

At the same time, the company said Texas Instruments isn't an exclusive partner. "We're going to go out and buy best-of-breed silicon technology from a variety of sources," Splain said.