December 8, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Sun puts 16 cores on its 'Rock' chip

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems, already an aggressive advocate of multicore processing, will try to stay a step ahead of the game by putting 16 cores in its high-end Rock chip.

With overheating capping chip speeds, chipmakers have been scrambling to improve performance instead by packing multiple processing engines onto a single slice of silicon. Sun got an early start with its UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor, which has eight cores, and it looks like Rock will keep the company a step ahead of the competition.

Rock will have 16 cores, John Fowler, executive vice president of Sun's systems business, said in an interview Thursday. Rock-based servers, due to arrive in servers in 2008, will likely come as competitors' chips have at most eight cores, analysts say. Boosting performance is crucial to Sun's attempt to reverse the diminished influence and use of its Sparc family of processors, which have lost share to mainstream x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices and to rivals such as IBM's Power family.

"Sun clearly has gone further with multicore approaches, even with Niagara and Niagara 2, than everybody else. This is just a logical extrapolation of what they've done," said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "If it's going to 16 cores, with multiple threads (independent instruction sequences) per core, it's going to be a real barn-burner."

Servers for years have been built with multiple processors, so it's not as if competitors lacking a 16-core design will have no answer to Sun's products. But packing more performance into a single processor provides a way to reduce processor and system manufacturing costs and to boost performance without compounding today's problems with keeping data centers cool.

A Rock design-completion milestone called "tape-out" for the chip is just a few weeks away, Marc Tremblay, Sun's chief architect, said in a meeting here Wednesday. The company is holding a contest right now: if Sun engineers don't tape out the design by December 31, they'll all have to wear a tie, formal attire that Tremblay suspects is lacking from many of the designers' wardrobes.

Among competitors, Intel just moved to quad-core designs by mounting two silicon chips in a single processor package, and AMD's "Barcelona," with four cores on one slice of silicon, is due in mid-2007. Brookwood believes it possible some of these competitors will be able to release eight-core designs in 2008, but not 16.

Moving at a more stately multicore pace is Intel's Itanium family, which just reached dual-core status. Even Power6, due in 2007 from multicore pioneer IBM, will have only dual cores. A Fujitsu Sparc64 processor due in 2008 will have four cores.

Defining what exactly constitutes a core is a tricky business, though. David Yen, Sun's previous Sparc chief, said earlier that some Rock features are shared across multiple cores, blurring the boundaries somewhat.

Sun's chip reputation has been tarnished by years of delays and missteps in its Sparc processor business, said Greg Quick, an analyst with the 451 Group, but the company has partially restored it by meeting Niagara schedules. If it can show customers that Rock will significantly boost performance, Sun should be able at least to prevent current customers from phasing out their Sun servers.

Heavyweight cores
Niagara has eight cores, but competitors have dinged Sun because each core is lightweight compared with those in current chips, such as Intel Xeon or IBM's Power. With the ability to handle 32 threads, Niagara can get a lot of work done in a given amount of time, but the time taken to complete a specific task is relatively long.

Rock's design has a more traditional emphasis on performance, though, with threads running faster when measured individually as well as in aggregate. "Rock tries to optimize for high per-thread performance," Tremblay said.

CONTINUED: Scouts are key…
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16 Cores
This is good move on Sun's part, but one problem is that, simply put, SPARC is a dead instruction set. Sun needs to make x86 compatible servers.

One aspect that is favorable for Sun's many-core technology is that Oracle offers a very favorable licensing (.25 per core) model. I do cover cool threads on my blog with particular interest in the FPU technology these processors have:

<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by kevinclosson (14 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What are you talking about?
"SPARC is a dead instruction set"

Sparc is second only to x86 in terms of development and support. I guess you are saying if it is not x86 then it is dead? Tell that to the members and users of sparc, power, and itanium.

"Sun needs to make x86 compatible servers."

x2100, x2200, x4100, x4200, x4500, x4600, SE5320, SB8000.

Are you sure about anything you are saying?

People should care more about their applications than hardware, and the the fact of the matter is that if you have an application, more than likely it will run on Sun.
Posted by zkysr (78 comments )
Link Flag
Very long pipeline
I would bet that it will take a compiler much like the ones used by Itanium to get best performance from these chips.

They will be very good for some types of applications, near useless for others. I would love to get a few of these for use in raytracing.
Posted by ralfthedog (1589 comments )
Reply Link Flag
As we've recently seen with the rash of great Itanium2 TPC results, it is all about the compiler. I heard some inside G2 that recent Itanium2 compiler optimizations were *extremely* significant. But, I'm a database (Oracle) guy, so what do I know...load and store..who neads anything else... :-)
Posted by kevinclosson (14 comments )
Link Flag
OS is important too.
If you've got a multithreaded application, what's to keep some of
those threads from being shifted to another processor by the OS?
While it won't guarantee best performance, I wouldn't call it near
Posted by Macsaresafer (802 comments )
Link Flag
How do you know the pipeline length?
As I understand it, Rock and Niagara seek performance through multithreading rather than single-threaded performance via high clock rates.

Long pipelines are only needed for high clock rate designs, such as Intel's Pentium IV Netburst architecture. It is possible to get high clock rates with shorter pipelines, as IBM is claiming with POWER6. But at moderate clock rates (2-3 GHz), like currently on Intel Core and AMD Opteron designs, long pipelines are not required.

Long pipelines should not be required for a design like Rock. It is basically 16 relatively simple SPARC cores (along with some advancements like the scout thread) on a single chip. I doubt Sun would design the chip with long pipelines if the design doesn't require it. That would just decrease efficiency.

Second, regarding compilers, this chip will simply look like a 16 socket server to the OS and application. The scout thread has be described as "an intelligent prefetch", so it should also be transparent to the OS and application.

Parallelizing compilers will be necessary, but the SMP revolution happened 15 years ago, and the massive SMP revolution happened 10 years ago, so the software should already be ready.
Posted by meh130 (145 comments )
Link Flag
Power PC is goood tooo
I own the G5 Power Mac, and I know that Apple switched to Intel, but I think they should continue to offer a choice in the Pro (machines) between say Intel (Xeon now) and the next generation of IBM Power PC 6, hudge improvement has been done.

I love my Power PC, nothing maches it up to that point in Date development in my opinion, not a single freeze or a crash on my Power Mac Machine, non-stop use for a year.

EVerything from Photoshop, to Apache, I do it all, beautiful machine, and I will snatch up more as people upgrade for a sweet song, these are great machines.
Posted by rmiecznik (224 comments )
Reply Link Flag
ROCK will never see the light of day
I have heard Rock will never see the light of day. TI cannot fab the design which is why they lost DARPA. They will likely only be able to acheive half of the promised 2.3GHz.
NiagaraIII will replace ROCK. ROCK or "Regatta On a Chip Killer" is too expensive and is being designed by a seperate group than Niagara. The same pipeline issues which caused the cancellation of SPARC V are in ROCK and it has the "Millenium Bug". I guess not the first time Sun is hypeing a project they plan to cancel.
Posted by MrMojoSunRisin (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Let us see
Wait &#38; Watch. SUN's server revenues are climbing up.
SUN is the emperor of throughput computing. My expectation is that SUNW might be $10 in year 2007 ( i have some SUNW shares with me ).
Posted by pokiri (98 comments )
Link Flag
Re: ROCK will never see the light of day
I guess we'll see. Unfortunately, I've never been impressed by Sun. I'm shocked they did as well as they did for as long as they did.

I will say their sales force is superior to anything I've ever encountered, but their technology never did anything for me.

Putting 16 cores on a chip is probably about the most exciting thing I've ever seen them do.

I hate to see any company go out of business. Who knows, hopefully they'll pull one out of their hat and business will pick up. I hope it does, but I'm not going to bet on it.

Charles R. Whealton
Charles Whealton @
Posted by chuck_whealton (521 comments )
Link Flag
Sun is what is dead
Thanks for opening java, now just die already.

Posted by SystemsJunky (409 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So boring...
I started hearing since year 2000 that "SUN is dead . SUN is dead". Still they are out there.
It is getting boring.
I am just jealous that they had recently 3 consecutive quarters of year-over-year revenue growth.
Posted by pokiri (98 comments )
Reply Link Flag
PE of 29 if they made 1billion in profit.
At 5.00 a share, sun already has a P.E. of 29 "if" they were making a billion a year profit on their 14 Billion in revenue.

So to hit 10.00 a share, people would have to believe Sun could make 2 billion a year in profit and accept a industry high PE of 29.

Since they have yet to show any profit, and have been loosing 1/2 billion a year... hmm don't hold out hope for 10.00 soon.

More like 3.50.
Posted by dance2099 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not true
At the current price of $5.52, Sun's market cap is 19.4B (see either or so 1B in profit will make its PE 19.

So your stated PE of 29 at $5/share roughly doubles the correct PE.
Posted by wombat_hanger (1 comment )
Link Flag
PE of 29 if they made 1billion in profit.
At 5.00 a share, sun already has a P.E. of 29 "if" they were making a billion a year profit on their 14 Billion in revenue.

So to hit 10.00 a share, people would have to believe Sun could make 2 billion a year in profit and accept a industry high PE of 29.

Since they have yet to show any profit, and have been loosing 1/2 billion a year... hmm don't hold out hope for 10.00 soon.

More like 3.50.
Posted by dance2099 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Power6 will have quad core
Power6, like its direct predecessor Power5+, will have both dual-core and quad-core implementations, contrary to what is stated in the article.
Posted by Eric Draven (34 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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