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Sun's plan for open-source chips bears fruit

Start-up Simply RISC builds a single-core variant of Sun Microsystems' open-source UltraSparc T1 chip.

A start-up called Simply RISC has built a single-core variant of Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc T1, an indication of interest in Sun's plan to encourage others to adopt and modify open-source designs for the processor.

The UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" has eight processing engines, called "cores," but Simply RISC's variant, called the "S1 Core," has only one. It's designed for embedded computing applications such as those in handheld computers, set-top boxes or digital cameras, the company said on its Web site Friday.

The company consists of former STMicroelectronics engineers working in Catania, Italy, and in Bristol, England. It has shipped its first S1 Core chip, code-named Sirocco.

The chip can run the Unix and Linux operating systems, Simply RISC said. Sun's Solaris version of Unix is chiefly used on Sparc processors, and the server maker is encouraging efforts by Linux programmers to support the UltraSparc T1. The Ubuntu version of Linux already has been adapted for the UltraSparc T1.

To infuse new energy into the Sparc processor realm, Sun released hardware designs for its new model. It is trying to build an OpenSparc community of hardware engineers around the chip, similar to the groups of programmers that support and extend open-source software.

The Sparc chips, while popular in the 1990s for servers, have lost some ground to high-end chips, such as IBM's Power and Intel's new Itanium. The biggest competition, however, has come from x86 chips, including Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron.