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Sun upgrading high-end Unix servers in November

Company will give them its new UltraSpark IV+ processors next month, CNET learns.

Sun Microsystems plans to begin the second phase of its change to its new UltraSparc IV+ processor on Nov. 8, bringing the chip to its high-end Unix servers, CNET has learned.

The UltraSparc IV+ processor significantly increases server performance, compared with its predecessor, the UltraSparc IV. Sun introduced the new chip in its midrange Unix servers--models with between four and 24 processors--in September.

Sun will bring the new chip to standard configurations of its top-end 36-processor Sun Fire E20K and 72-processor E25K on Nov. 8, according to a note on the System News Web site. System News partners with Sun Channel Partners and provides Web and newsletter services to Sun Microsystems. Sun declined to comment for this story.

Those who are more impatient have another option, too: Starting Tuesday, they can buy the "Uniboard" system boards with UltraSparc IV+ chips. Uniboards with any UltraSparc III, IV and IV+ processors can all be used simultaneously in the same server. The IV and IV+ models have two processing engines, or cores.

Those who trade in earlier Uniboards can get discounts of up to 40 percent when buying the new models, Sun said. Performance with the new Uniboards increases 50 percent to 80 percent, compared with UltraSparc IV-based systems, and 200 percent to 250 percent compared with UltraSparc III-based systems, Sun said.

The top end of Sun's Sparc server line could use a boost. Merrill Lynch analyst Richard Farmer last week said Sun's most recent quarter had strong sales of midrange models with four, eight and 12 processors but "relative weakness in high-end enterprise servers."

The UltraSparc models face competition from IBM's new Power5+, though that processor is only available in lower-end Unix servers from IBM so far. It will see more competition when Intel begins selling its first dual-core Itanium chip, code-named "Montecito." Hewlett-Packard's high-end server line uses Itanium.

The UltraSparc IV+, like the Power5+ and Montecito Itanium, employs a manufacturing process with features measuring 90 nanometers, or 90 billionths of a meter. Its predecessors use a 130-nanometer process. The new process enables Sun to add more circuitry to the chip; the company used this expanded "transistor budget" to move formerly separate high-speed cache memory directly onto the chip.

Sun has several other Sparc chips in development as the Santa Clara, Calif.-based server and software maker works to keep the once-dominant processor family relevant. In coming months, Sun plans to introduce lower-end servers using the UltraSparc IIIi+ and the more ambitious "Niagara" processor, which has eight cores and can simultaneously execute 32 instruction sequences, called threads.

In 2006, Sun plans to begin selling servers using Fujitsu's Sparc64 VI processor in a server family called, for the time being, the Advanced Product Line. Future high-end systems using a Sun-designed chip code-named Rock are due in 2008.