Texas Instruments is making the processors on a more advanced manufacturing process and built prototypes of a major new design, key steps in keeping Sun's products competitive.
The change at TI involves moving to a larger "wafer," the circular silicon crystal that is cut into hundreds of processors. The new manufacturing process will allow Sun to build faster servers and buy processors from TI more cheaply, important factors as Sun tries to stave off competition from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft and Dell.
TI is prototyping UltraSparcs that fit two processors on a single slice of silicon, a process IBM pioneered in servers with its Power4 chip and that HP and Intel are planning to adopt as well. "Everything we've seen in the initial prototypes looks very solid," said Peter Rickert, a TI fellow and technology development platform manager.
Fitting two processors on a single piece of silicon helps boost the speed of servers, higher-end systems that can have dozens of processors and are used for tasks such as managing an automaker's parts inventory.
Sun's latest top-end chips, 1.05GHz products used in workstations, currently are manufactured from wafers 200 millimeters in diameter at TI's Kilby plant. TI announced Wednesday that it has begun making 1.05GHz chips from 300mm wafers at its DMOS 6 plant.
Each 300mm wafer can produce 2.4 times as many processors as a 200mm wafer. In addition, the new processors are built with features as small as 120 nanometers, a notch smaller than the 150-nanometer process used for Sun's current 900MHz chips, meaning that yet more processors will fit on the wafer.
TI profits from the change to the larger wafers because they don't cost much more to handle than the smaller wafers. The per-chip production cost decreases by 30 percent to 40 percent, TI said.
"It allows us to drive our costs down for customers as well as improve our profit margins," Rickert said.
Sun sells 1.05GHz processors only in a 20th anniversary edition workstation, but plans to spread it to its servers this quarter, spokeswoman Kasey Holman said.
After that, TI is helping Sun move up to 1.2GHz processors, Rickert said. TI also is working on 90-nanometer process technology, with plans to start working with customer prototypes in early 2003 and production in late 2003 or early 2004.
Sun's coming UltraSparc IV processors will be built on a 120-micron process, and its UltraSparc V processors will be built on a 90-micron process, said David Yen,
In the nearer future, TI will begin firing up a third 120-nanometer UltraSparc chip fabrication factory, or "fab," as it upgrades the plant currently used to build the bulk of Sun's 900MHz, 150-nanometer UltraSparcs, Rickert said.
Meanwhile, Fujitsu Technology Solutions, which sells Unix servers with Sun's Solaris operating system but its own Sparc64-GP processors, announced faster chips as well across its server line that will boost server speed about 30 percent.
Previously, the company's processors topped out at 675MHz, but the company now is selling 810MHz, 788MHz and 700MHz processors.
The top-end 128-processor Primepower 2000, the 32-processor PrimePower 1000 and the 16-processor PrimePower 800 products are available with 788MHz chips. The mid-range eight-processor 650 and 16-processor 850 models are for sale with 810MHz chips. The low-end two-processor 200 and four-processor 400 come with 700MHz chips.