April 27, 2005 1:12 PM PDT

New Sun priorities could speed Niagara servers

Sun Microsystems likely will switch the order of arrival of two forthcoming server models, putting a higher priority on systems using the comparatively radical Niagara processor.

Shipping Niagara-based servers could be a boon for Sun, which is seeking to keep its Sparc family of processors competitive but which has had trouble bringing new processors to market on schedule. But advancing Niagara's schedule would come at the expense of slowing down a more conventional processor, the UltraSparc IIIi+.

"We may choose to release Niagara before the IIIi+," Andy Ingram, vice president of marketing for Sun's Sparc-based servers, said in a Wednesday interview. "We think bringing Niagara to market sooner has a higher value to us and our customers."

Boosting Niagara would boost Sun, said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "If they could accelerate Niagara--even by a few months into this calendar year--that would be a phenomenal boost for the company," he said.

For one thing, it would "demonstrate that their execution has been very crisp on this program," and for another, it would let customers evaluate systems, Brookwood said. If Niagara lives up to Sun's claims, it will provide high enough performance and consume little enough electricity that the company could attract new customers to Sparc.

Niagara has been due to arrive in systems in 2006, but Ingram said customers have prototype systems today and an earlier shipment date is possible. "The latest will be early 2006 that we introduce the products," he said. "It's coming in better than any other processor we've ever produced."

Sun's UltraSparc processors are the foundation of a server line that was tremendously popular in the 1990s but has lost share to systems based on Intel's Xeon and IBM's Power family since then. And Intel continues to push its Itanium processor, sold chiefly by Hewlett-Packard.

Sun's response has been threefold. It's aggressively pushing Sparc designs: Niagara, its Niagara II sequel, and its high-end cousin Rock. The company signed a deal to use Fujitsu's high-end Olympus processor as a replacement for its canceled UltraSparc V. And it's designing new "Galaxy" servers based on Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processor, an x86 chip compatible with Intel's Xeon.

Niagara combines eight processing cores on a single piece of silicon, and each core can execute four simultaneous sequences called threads. Sun believes a single Niagara machine will be able to

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IIIi+, IV+, Niagra, Niagra-II
While Sun had traditionally made most of it's money in the mid-range area, it is important to realize what brings the mid-range customers...

Sun had always had some of the best price-performance metrics in the industry - often driven by it's low-mid range servers.

Customers know they can pay a price and scale to mid-range and high-end servers. That price... the ability to scale up, if the business dictates the need, is what drives Sun's existance.

While the UltraSparcIIIi drove best-in-class price/performance for many months, the UltraSparcIIIi+ offers the opportunity to compete in that arena with Opteron.

While the UltraSparcIV drive best-in-class price/performance for many months, the UltraSparc IV+ offers the opportunity to re-gain some lost ground to IBM with it's Power 5+ in the low-mid range. With the IV+ release, SUN had sufficiently buried IBM Power 5+ since IBM could not re-engineer the high-end machines in a reasonable timeframe.

Niagra offers what no chip on the market can offer - 32 processing threads on a single chip. There IS NO REASON to scale horizontally with multiple cheap boxes when Niagra exists.

It is clear why the likes of Google and eBay are engaging Sun again. It also makes sense why the financial arena is showing interest again.

Niagra is a killer technology which shows up no-where on any other chip makers timeline until the turn of the decade.
Posted by DavidHalko (18 comments )
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