December 6, 2005 6:55 PM PST

Sun makes Niagara an open-source chip

In a bid to increase the relevance of its processor line, Sun Microsystems pledged Tuesday to make the underlying designs of its new UltraSparc T1 an open-source project.

The Sparc chip specifications have been available for years to those who pay a fee to licensing organization Sparc International. But now Sun plans to release not just the specifications, but also the design itself, written in the Verilog hardware description language, and an accompanying verification suite and simulation models.

Sun plans to release the information through a new group called OpenSparc in the first quarter of 2006 and will use a license approved by the Open Source Initiative, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company said during Tuesday's launch of the ambitious T1-based T1000 and T2000 servers.

Releasing the UltraSparc T1 details move is likely to appeal chiefly to academia, said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "I really think it may appeal to some researchers. It's really hard for me to imagine that a serious manufacturer would go off and make a product out of it," he said.

The abstract Verilog description is still a long way from a complete hardware design, Brookwood added. "It's about halfway between the point when you design something and you hand it off to the foundry" for a chip to be manufactured, he said.

The UltraSparc T1, code-named Niagara, is a major part of Sun's effort to restore waning enthusiasm for the company's Sparc line, which has lost market share to Power chips from IBM and x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices in recent years.

The open-source chip move is the latest step in Sun's effort to leave behind its reputation for being closed and proprietary. Sun took another step a week ago when it declared that all its software would become free and open source--all except the core Java software, that is.

Sparc chips are used chiefly in servers from Sun and Fujitsu, though they are also used occasionally in other products such as Scientific Atlanta's Explorer 8000 set-top box or Olympus' D-300 Zoom digital camera. However, Sparc hasn't come close to the ubiquity of chip families such as ARM or x86.

The most direct competitor, though, is IBM's Power family. IBM has several significant licensees, including Freescale Semiconductor and P.A. Semi, and Big Blue is trying to promote wider use through its Power.org licensing program.

Sun hopes the OpenSparc effort will lead to widespread use of the chip--a move that could benefit Sun. The company sells support for the Solaris operating system, which is the only real option for use with the chip today. But that could change in the long run: Sun, taking another page from the IBM playbook, said Tuesday it's "actively working with the open-source community to bring Linux and FreeBSD to the UltraSparc T1 platform."

Sun has high hopes for the move. "The program will yield more collaboration and cooperation around hardware design and is expected to help drive down the costs of implementing the design in different technologies while enabling bold new products to be brought to market," the company said in a press release.

Even if it falls short of those goals, OpenSparc will give Sun marketing fodder to knock Intel and IBM, while promoting its "sharing" agenda. And as with releasing its software for free, it's unlikely to come with a financial penalty.

"They see it as unlikely to have much downside," Brookwood said. "The upside is also unclear, but it's not going to cost them much to do it."

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Open-Source Hardware
Open Hardware
Open Circuit

~sounds better
Posted by (11 comments )
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Waning?
I don't understand why reporters have to also play the role of pundits. These snippets really irk me: "In a bid to increase the relevance of its processor line..." and "...to restore waning enthusiasm..." Last I heard, ultraSPARC systems accounted for several billion $$ a quarter in sales with hefty margins and Q/Q, Y/Y revenue growth. What's "waning" or irrelevant about that? I guess this reporter couldn't see beyond the cheap Wintel clone sitting on his desk. Stick to reporting and leave the punditry to the analysts.
Posted by (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Open Source pixie dust???
Sun is a doomed company. Its market share is dwindling, its profits are virtually non existent and its share price is less then a cup of Java. It still doesnt get it open source and free software, dont make money. Soon most of those, unfortunately very smart, engineers who designed its software and hardware soon would be tossing burgers and MacDonalds. Shame of their management, Scott McNealy should hang himself using a PC mouse cord.
Posted by FutureGuy (742 comments )
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Check out their audiocasts: It's just a contract simplification
Using an OSI certified contract to simplify the software behind their chips doesn't make them lose money. Hardware still costs money. The only reason that Open Source software is 'free,' which is proper for a fre society and not a dictatorship because I own what I purchase, is the Internet happens to not need paper money and I hope hardware will follow.
Posted by Blito (436 comments )
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SPARC Still Open, Still Growing...
Industry analysts continues to spell SPARC incorrectly but wish to be taken seriously.

Vendors have been taking SPARC specification and generating new CPU's for a decade. Industry analysts are continuing to not be very credible when they claim something which happened for a decade is unlikely when SUN is making it easier.

Every other vendor uses proprietary processors and no one can pick up a proprietary spec and build one without being sued (Intel suing AMD in the past is a fine example.)

Openness is why people like SUN.
Posted by DavidHalko (18 comments )
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