Martin @ Blog

software development and life.


Sun is following a new course

It was already obvious that Sun Microsystems was changing. Recently, the company started to make several software products open source and still keeps saying that the ultimate goal of the company is to make all software it develops open source. Change is necessary for the company, because financially the company is still not doing very well.
Yesterday, Sun announced a new product which indicates that Sun is changing and taking risks in order to become succesful. The company introduced the new UltraSPARC T1 ‘Niagra’ processor and two new servers which incorporate this new UltraSPARC-product. Additionally, Sun is pretending that apart from software, it also is making its hardware open source. According to the site, all the hardware design files are given away to the open source community. Currently, there is not yet anything available, but according to the FAQ the Verilog design, ISA and a verifcation suite should be available by march 2006. Sun has not yet decided about the license under which everything will be given away, but also according to the FAQ it will be an OSI approved one. However, it will be questionable what the value of this action will be. Designing a processor is not something which everyone can do in a short period of time, and therefore there will be a limited numbe of possible contributers. According to the FAQ of the OpenSPARC project, there is already interest from universities, small embedded system companies and network specialists. I think that there are not many more groups of people which are interested in open source processor hardware. Still, I think it is a good initiative of Sun which underlines the new strategy the company is following.

Sun UltraSPARC T1 processorOn the hardware site, the Niagra processor is a rather innovative design. Unlike current available processors, the UltraSPARC T1 consists of at most eight cores which are able to process four threads simultaniously each. In total the processor is capable of processing 32 threads simultaniously. The processor is (obviously) entirely 64-bits and has 3MB of cache on board which should be shared by all eight cores. Also, the energy consumption is very low with a default energy consumption of 72 Watt which can raise to at most 79 Watt. Unfortunately, to enable the low energy consumption, Sun has to simplify some parts of the processor. For example, the cores are based on the UltraSPARC II design (which is a little bit dated) and there is only one FPU which has to be shared by the eight cores. Apart from that, I think Sun deserves some compliments for taking the risk of designing a processor which breaks with the tradition.

Of course there are downsides of the approach Sun has taken. The design is optimized for multi-thread applications, which are not very common, because most current processors are optimized for at most two or four threads simultiously. However, for some server applications, the ability to process a large number of threads simultaniously has big advantages. Think of webservers (Apache uses a thread for every incoming connection) or database servers. The floating point performance will be poor, because there is only one FPU. The opponents of Sun are trying very hard to let the customer believe that Sun is taking the wrong direction (however, the don’t state it in such harsh words, because it is not very likely that it actually is the wrong direction) and are trying to take customers from Sun to their server platforms. HP has even put up a entire webpage to point out that Sun has created a innovative design of which the success is unknown.

Sun Fire T2000 server

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