Sun upgrades servers with UltraSparc IV+ debut

Next week will see the launch of the new top-of-the-line chip in a revamp of Sun's core Unix server line, News.com has learned.

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Sun Microsystems is expected to revamp its core Unix server line on Tuesday with the debut of its high-end UltraSparc IV+ processor, CNET News.com has learned.

The UltraSparc IV+, code-named Panther, will be available in midrange models ranging from the four-processor V490 to the 24-processor E6900, according to sources familiar with the products. Those systems have been the bread and butter of Sun's business but also a market segment under fierce attack by IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

Sun is trying to reinvigorate the chip family in the face of that strong competition with the chip, which promises to double the performance of servers that use the previous top-of-the-line model, UltraSparc IV.

The big UltraSparc IV+ improvement is the inclusion of 2MB of built-in high-speed cache memory where UltraSparc IV had none. "They're going to get a huge performance boost from the on-chip cache," said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood.

The initial clock speed of the dual-core chip is expected to be 1.5GHz, sources said--two speed grades slower than the 1.8GHz promised by Sun last year. However, a 1.8GHz model could arrive as early as the first quarter of 2006, one source said. The UltraSparc IV today tops out at 1.35GHz.

One thing that won't change is the price of the server models revamped with the new chip, a source familiar with the products said. Because the UltraSparc IV+ uses the same interface and won't run any hotter than its predecessors, it can be plugged into the same systems that currently employ UltraSparc IV and UltraSparc III.

Sun declined to comment for this story.

Sun has struggled to keep its Sparc family of chips competitive against lower-end but widely used x86 processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, and against higher-end RISC (reduced instruction set computing) competitors such as IBM's Power. However, the launch of UltraSparc IV+, the development of several more ambitious models and a partnership with Fujitsu are signs that the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is maintaining its commitment to the Sparc family. At the same time, Sun has welcomed x86 chips with its "Galaxy" line.

Strong competition
The need to boost Unix server sales is an urgent issue for Sun. In the second quarter of 2005, the Unix server market grew 6.6 percent to $4.2 billion, according to market research firm Gartner. Amid the increase, Sun's share of that market dropped from 38 percent to 33 percent. HP was level at 29 percent, but IBM grew from 23 percent to 28 percent.

Given those market dynamics, it's no surprise that Sun is aiming its competitive rhetoric chiefly at IBM's Power chip family. But whatever performance advantages UltraSparc IV+ might have over the current top-of-the-line Power5 processor are likely to be short-lived: IBM's faster Power5+ is due by the end of the year.

UltraSparc's other big competitor is Intel's Itanium, which is sold chiefly by the chip's co-developer, HP. By the end of 2005, Intel plans to release a model code-named Montecito that combines two processing engines, called cores, on the same slice of silicon.

The UltraSparc IV was Sun's first dual-core chip, with two UltraSparc III cores. The UltraSparc IV was built using a manufacturing process that permits 130-nanometer features, but the IV+ uses a 90-nanometer process that allows smaller features and therefore more circuitry on the chip.

The current UltraSparc lineage is coming to an end as Sun moves to its more ambitious "chip multithreading" designs, code-named Niagara and Rock. These CMT chips use many processing cores that simultaneously execute many instruction sequences, called threads.

Sun canceled its UltraSparc V processor, which was inauspiciously code-named Millennium. The chief architect of UltraSparc IV, Quinn Jacobson, now works for Intel, sources said.

Next up in the UltraSparc family is the UltraSparc IIIi+, an improved version of the IIIi that is due to launch in the next few months for Sun's lower-end Sparc servers. As with the UltraSparc IV+, the IIIi+ is built with a more advanced process and comes with improved cache memory.

Texas Instruments manufactures Sun's UltraSparc processors.

Future plans
In its effort to keep Sparc a vital part of corporate computing, Sun has three major projects under way.

First up will be Niagara, a model with eight processing cores that each can handle four instruction sequences, or threads, but that only consumes 56 watts. Niagara servers are expected in early 2006 and quite possibly late 2005, Sun has said. In addition, a successor called Niagara II is likely to arrive in 2007.

Sun has two initial Niagara-based systems in development, the 1.75-inch-thick "Erie" systems and the 3.5-inch-thick "Ontario" systems. The designs share the same enclosure as Sun's X4100 and X4200 Galaxy servers, respectively.

For higher-end work such as databases, where individual threads must be executed more swiftly, Sun has signed a partnership with Fujitsu to sell servers based on the Japanese company's Sparc64 VI chip. The chip, code-named Olympus, incorporates high-reliability features from Fujitsu's Amdahl mainframe experience.

The servers from the Fujitsu partnership are called APL, short for Advanced Product Line. They're due to arrive in 2006 and replace the scrapped UltraSparc V-based "Eagle" systems.

Then in 2008, Sun's own high-end processor, code-named Rock and formerly called 30x, is scheduled to arrive in servers. It combines the aggressive multicore approach of Niagara with fast thread execution. Rock and Niagara II are both built using the next-generation manufacturing process with 65-nanometer features.