Sun to build servers on Rock in 2008

Struggling server maker lays out long-term goals for advanced processor in a move to spark renewed confidence.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems plans to release servers based on its future high-end Rock processors by 2008, signaling the company's long-term commitment to the embattled Sparc family.

The Rock processor family, along with lower-end Niagara models, will employ a design called chip multithreading to let a chip run several tasks simultaneously. Rock previously was code-named 30x because it is designed to run systems 30 times faster than the 1.2GHz UltraSparc III that arrived in 2003.

"The Rock systems do not come out before 2008," said Andy Ingram, vice president of marketing for Sun's Scalable Systems Group, in a meeting with reporters and analysts here Thursday. But a partnership under which Fujitsu and Sun will jointly develop and sell Sparc servers means that Sun will be able to hasten the arrival of the overall family, he added.

Establishing a healthy future for the Sparc line of processors is vital to Sun's efforts to keep customers, software makers and other business partners from defecting to rival processor families--"x86" models such as Intel's Xeon or Advanced Micro Devices, Power models from IBM, or Itanium models from Intel and Hewlett-Packard. Those alternatives have been encroaching on Sun's turf after the dot-com bust and recession reversed the Santa Clara, Calif., company's fortunes.

IBM also is sharing its long-term schedules for its Unix servers, last week announcing that its Power7 processor is due in 2008 and the Power7+ upgrade in 2009.

Sun has warmed to x86--moving from a grudging acceptance of Xeon to an enthusiastic embrace of Opteron. But Sparc is crucial to the company's high-end server plans and to Sun's attempt to keep as much of its destiny as possible in its own hands.

The company has a history of bucking industry trends--notably Microsoft Windows--in favor of in-house technology such as its own programming language and version of Unix. But that go-it-alone strategy has made it difficult for Sun to incorporate outside trends such as x86 processors and Linux.

Sun yielded some autonomy when it joined forces with Fujitsu. But the move was also an opportunity for Sun to move engineers to Rock by scrapping its work on UltraSparc V, inauspiciously code-named Millennium and originally expected years ago.

"A lot of the resources for Millennium and associated systems are now working on Rock and associated systems," Ingram said.

Sun competitors have derided the Fujitsu partnership and UltraSparc V cancellation as signs that customers can't trust the stability of Sun's planning. But the change made sense, said Sageza Group analyst Charles King.

"The Fujitsu alliance is one of the smartest things they could do, in my opinion. According to benchmarks, Fujitsu is doing a better job engineering Sparc than Sun has been," King said.

The announcement about the Rock systems sends a message to customers with long-term plans, King said. "It's very important for Sun, purely from a public relations standpoint, to continue pushing forward with a long-range strategy," but the ultimate practicality of Rock still is unknown. "They're skirting very close to the edge of science fiction, to my mind."

Current processors are built using a manufacturing process with chip features measuring 90 nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Rock requires the next-generation 65 nanometer process, which will let more circuitry be squeezed onto a single silicon chip. "The gating item for this is the 65 nanometer process," Ingram said.

The APL partnership
The Fujitsu partnership will give both companies a shared Sparc server line called the Advanced Product Line (APL), beginning in 2006. Lower-end systems will use Sun's Niagara chip, while midrange and high-end systems will use Fujitsu's Sparc64 VI, code-named Olympus.

The APL partnership is a three- to five-year plan that doesn't include Rock systems or Sun's Opteron servers, but it's very possible the deal could be expanded, Ingram said. "Down the road, there are a rich set of options we can look at in other directions," he said. "If they want access to Rock and Rock systems, that's enabled. I'd love to see the relationship continue on and incorporate Rock technology."

The partnership also could extend to software, said Brian Sutphin, Sun's senior vice president of corporate development, the executive who hammered out the agreement.

"We're working on a distribution agreement on Sun software products--Java Enterprise Server, for example--through the existing Fujitsu (sales) channels," Sutphin said. JES is Sun's server software suite, which currently is priced purely according to how many employees a JES customer has and which Sun is considering releasing as open-source software.

Sun also has had "conversations with Fujitsu about Solaris x86," a version of Sun's Unix operating system that runs on x86 chips, Sutphin said.

The companies will share revenue from the partnership, Sutphin said. "If a system is sold by Sun that contains components developed by Fujitsu, there's going to be revenue to Fujitsu on that sale," and vice-versa, he said.

In the APL partnership, Fujitsu will build the Olympus processors and Sun's longtime chip-making partner, Texas Instruments, will build Niagara. "We're expecting parts back from TI this month," Ingram said.

A successor called Niagara 2 also is in development, a processor that, like Rock, will use a 65-nanometer production process.