April 17, 2006 4:07 PM PDT

Sun at work on Niagara, Rock successors

MENLO PARK, Calif.--Sun Microsystems has begun engineering work on sequels to two new families of Sparc processors, "Niagara" and "Rock," that use a more advanced manufacturing process.

The current Niagara systems, which began shipping in December, employ an aggressive approach to running multiple tasks simultaneously, an approach Sun calls chip multithreading. The first Niagara chip, formally named UltraSparc T1, and a sequel called Niagara II are geared for lower-end servers that handle tasks such as hosting Web sites or running Java programs, while Rock will be for high-end tasks.

Sun's current Sparc chips are built with a Texas Instruments manufacturing process with 90-nanometer circuitry elements. With Niagara II, due in the second half of 2007, and Rock, due in 2008, Sun will shift to a 65-nanometer process. Already, though, Sun engineers are working on sequels using the 45-nanometer process, said David Yen, executive vice president of Sun's scalable systems group, in an interview here.

Moving to new manufacturing processes with smaller elements means that more circuitry can be squeezed onto the same amount of silicon. That, in turn, frees chip designers to add new features such as processing cores or encryption engines--and gives Sun a chance to improve a processor lineage that has largely languished in the years after the dot-com bust.

Niagara has eight processing cores, each able to handle four threads, enabling a total of 32 independent software sequences to run simultaneously. Niagara II increases this limit to 64; Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood has said Niagara II doubles threads per core to eight to achieve the greater throughput.

In addition, Niagara II will improve mathematical abilities by adding more than the single floating-point calculation unit shared by all eight cores of the current processor, Yen said. Networking, too, will be faster, with 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet built in.

And where Niagara I can speed encryption and decryption tasks using the RSA algorithm--employed notably in the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) of encrypted Web sites--Niagara II will handle more than five encryption algorithms, he said.

Yen has said Niagara II will be available in multiprocessor configurations; the Microprocessor Report said after a February interview with Sun chip designer Marc Tremblay that the chip will ship in dual-processor configurations. That means a single low-end server will offer 128 threads, an amount exceeding that of the once top-end 106-thread UltraSparc III-based "Starcat" Sun Fire 15K server.

After than will come a chip Yen at one point called Niagara III, built with the 45-nanometer process.

It can be tricky for software to manage dozens of threads, though Sun's Solaris operating system could handle the 15K. For those who don't want so many eggs in a single operating system basket, though, Sun plans "logical domain" software. This virtualization layer, due in the second half of 2006 and likely in the fourth quarter, will make it possible to run multiple instances of Solaris on the same server, Yen said.

Sun's biggest chip design rivals, IBM and Intel, both argue that Niagara is a niche product because customers prefer chips that can run a small number of threads fast.

Rock designs
Yen was cagier with Rock details, though he said the company will be more forthcoming in the second half of 2006 about the processor and the "Supernova" server design around it. But he did confirm one facet: Rock's approach is more complicated than just a number of identical cores. Some cores could have some structures to themselves, while other structures could be shared by several cores, he indicated.

"You start to transcend horizontal, multiple cores," he said. The organization of processing elements on Rock "doesn't necessarily have to be one-dimensional. You could group them in some kind of hierarchy. That is a possibility."

He didn't mention specific structures, but the current Niagara has eight cores that share a single cache, four memory controllers and one floating-point unit.

Sun expects to give its Rock processors a midlife speed bump with a faster version of the 65-nanometer manufacturing process, chips that will fit into existing Rock servers, Yen said. After that will come the 45-nanometer design. "You can imagine we already started that effort, just like Niagara 3.

In its more conventional processor products, Sun plans to release a new UltraSparc IV+ faster than the current 1.5GHz model. It's likely to run at 1.8GHz, though Yen wouldn't confirm the speed. Another speed bump after that also is possible, he said.

Sun is also working on a partnership called APL with Fujitsu for a conventional Sparc designs. Sun has a major role in the APL server designs, he said: "It's just as much ours as it is Fujitsu's." Both companies are training their sales forces for the late 2006 launch of midrange systems with four or eight processor sockets and the 2007 launch of higher-end systems.

After that, Sun will focus on its aggressively multithreaded models, Yen said. "Beyond APL, we believe it's time for these new breeds to take over."

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