May 15, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Sun, allies broaden open-source chip push

Sun Microsystems' open-source chip plan is bearing some early fruit, but the server and software company hopes to increase further involvement by sharing the designs of its forthcoming "Niagara 2" processor.

Sun has two early takers--Simply RISC, with operations in England and Italy, and Polaris Micro in China. Both are designing variations of OpenSparc S1, the open-source version of Sun's UltraSparc T1 Niagara processor.

But those companies and others will have more to work with in the future.

"It is our goal of eventually open-sourcing these Sparc processor designs," said David Yen, head of Sun's newly re-created microelectronics group, speaking of Niagara 2 and the Neptune networking chip derived from it.

Sun has begun arguably the most aggressive transformation of its business from proprietary products to the polar opposite, open source. Most of its software is or soon will be open source--an increasingly common practice in the computing industry--but Sun is unusual in releasing hardware designs as well.

"We truly believe OpenSparc will blossom in the future because it is open."
--Naxin Zhang, Polaris Micro CEO

As with its open-source software plans, the OpenSparc project is a bid for relevance first and revenue later.

The outside Sparc activity provides "a real example that OpenSparc is more than a publicity stunt," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "Although, as with Sun's other open-source activities, resultant revenue to Sun remains more a matter of faith than scientific fact."

Sun says it believes the open-source move will mean financial gain. "Through exposure and familiarity, we reduce the entry barrier--even if just mentally--for people to adopt Sparc processors in various places, including our system platform products," Yen said.

Sun wants to give Sparc a higher profile. The processors were the server brains of choice during the dot-com frenzy of the late 1990s, but they declined in importance as the chips lagged the competition's performance, delays hit new models and the dot-com bubble pulled the rug out from under Sun's server business.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has stabilized its server business somewhat, partly because its UltraSparc IV+ servers did much better than expected, partly because Sun belatedly welcomed x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron into its server line, and partly because Niagara servers have made modest gains--for example, sales of $125 million in each of the last two quarters.

Although Sun has hedged its bets with x86, it's still pushing Sparc hard. Niagara 2 is due soon in single-processor machines and in dual-processor models in the first half of 2008. Its high-end cousin, "Rock," is due to ship in servers in the second half of 2008. Sun last week announced that its Solaris operating system now has booted on a Rock prototype server, a significant accomplishment that indicates not just that the chip works reasonably well, but that the rest of the system does, as well.

Selling derivatives
OpenSparc has gained Sun some allies. China-based Polaris Micro chose to use the chip because it's open source, Chief Executive Naxin Zhang said. It's using its OpenSparc variant, to be built by a local chip foundry, in a system board it will sell to customers in the telecommunications and data-storage businesses.

"I can view and modify the source code. It also comes with verification, architecture simulation and other tools," Zhang said. "We truly believe OpenSparc will blossom in the future because it is open."

That openness makes it possible, for example, to build a version that plugs into the "Torrenza" chip socket used by Advanced Micro Devices. One Chinese telecommunications company is interested in that possibility, Zhang said.

Simply RISC, too, was drawn by the open-source license. Sun chose the General Public License (GPL), which also governs the Linux kernel and thousands of other software projects.

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6 comments

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I still think Open Spec type Hardware is safer and more competative
I really think it's more efficient and safe to be able to view the hardware and have it fixed by outside companies. Maybe you wouldn't fix the actual chip BUT it can be replaced more effectively by modification and also other chips built around that chip by alternative companies instead of just relying on the "Papa" company to just replace your stuff with a warrenty. No seious innovation and especially no customization. It's much more efficient to build around chips then to constantly reinvent the wheel with just a few companies.
Also, safer, meaning I know what I am getting and can protect myself from hackers etc. allot better. It's bad enough that specs aren't released to the public for microchips (and atomic sized nano-chips are here) but AMD's plans to start DRMing would be disastrous.

I might be to extreme in some areas of my opinion but this is where I stand now. I just think the move from tubes and wires to microchips hasn't realy been that enlightening.

I still think the constant short term (2 years) computer upgrading was and is a scam.
Posted by Blito (436 comments )
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The people at Sun don't get it
I know some people who've worked at Sun. one thing I've found is that they get so into the free-love, free software thing they forget that business is basd on competition.

Let's recap: a business is an organized group of people (usually not an individual) designed to provide goods and services in exchange for something else, usually money, AND does so in a "market", in which there are others attempting to do the same.

It's amazing that Sun hasn't died yet, but culturally, they aren't the type to seek advantage in the market. Eventually, they'll just end up being a service provider like Red Hat. Their cash cows, their software and hardware, are almost dead.
Posted by bob donut (90 comments )
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Really?
Bob's comment misses the fact that Sun is doing more for the industry than any of their competitor's combined. It is easy to underestimate Sun if you don't have any vision or insight into where they're going; and, frankly, that's Sun's fault. They're "wasting" money on innovation rather than advertising. Sun powers more of the world's computing than most other vendors. The open source model provides many thousands of "developers" that produce code constantly which is reviewed for possible inclusion in Solaris, for example. There is a new release every month that has potential to become part of the OS. Many folks don't "get" Sun including many of their employees. But, to count them either "down" or "out" is to misunderstand everything about them. They are a for-profit company and the efficacy of their vision will be clear more and more as time goes on. Bob's company must not have to compete with Sun because he would be virtually "bleeding" from the battle. Bob needs to get out more to see what reality looks like. Look for more: lower cost Java-based cell phones; a more user-friendly Solaris; higher performance, lower power consumption, denser cpu chips; and many other things from SunLabs. Sun not only "gets it" but they will count on folks like Bob to win.
Posted by American 1st (5 comments )
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Hardware not dead
I was at a major data center today that hosts some big name
companies... I can assure you that Sun's hardware is not dead, and
in fact makes up a substantial percentage of the thousands of
boxes that I saw among the racks. Just because you wouldn't buy
one for your desktop computer doesn't mean that it's worthless.
Posted by bradford653 (4 comments )
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