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Sun begins work on Niagara 3 chip

New processor will feature more cores and more threads than current versions, Sun's top server executive says. Photos: Next wave of Niagara

MENLO PARK, Calif.--Sun Microsystems engineers have begun designing Niagara 3, a second sequel to the company's ambitious lower-end processor.

John Fowler, executive vice president of Sun's server division, confirmed the development in an interview here Tuesday and suggested it will continue Sun's push to squeeze more processing cores onto the chip. This new member of the Sparc family will be built using a manufacturing process with 45-nanometer circuitry elements, he said.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has begun selling servers using its first-generation Niagara chips, officially called UltraSparc T1, and plans to begin selling its first Niagara 2 systems in the second half of 2007.

Niagara server

Niagara 1 is built with a 90-nanometer process; Niagara 2 will be built using a 65-nanometer process that permits more circuitry to be packed into the same surface area. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.

Niagara processors emphasize aggregate performance for many tasks running simultaneously, rather than a fast execution speed for individual tasks. The company is betting that the approach will help restore its reputation for innovation and its revenue in the server market, where Sparc chips have lost share to competitors from Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and IBM.

Niagara 1 has eight processing cores, each able to process four simultaneous "threads" of instructions. Niagara 2 doubles the total number of threads from 32 to 64 by supporting eight threads in each of its eight cores.

Niagara 3 will continue the trend, Fowler said. With it, Sun will be "pushing up threads and cores," he said. In addition, he said, the company is continuing with its basic instruction-processing pipeline that doesn't use elaborate ideas such as out-of-order execution that require a lot of circuitry.

Memory bandwidth also will be increased compared with earlier models, he said. Niagara designs are geared to sidestep delays in accessing memory by hopping from one thread to another as soon as the first stalls waiting for memory.

He declined to comment on when the chip will be available to customers.

The Niagara processors also have an emphasis on power efficiency; high electricity bills and data center overheating are increasing problems for customers.

"The second-largest operating expense in most Web companies is electricity, second only to payroll," Sun Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz said. "If we can be 2 percent more efficient and your bill is $100 million a year, that's real money."