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Sun Microsystems continues to plod away with the UltraSparc line of processors, disclosing some fresh details this week at the Microprocessor Forum on its fourth generation chip.

Most of the details of UltraSparc IV are already quite well known, but like any competent vendor Sun likes to keep touting product whenever possible, leaking out a spot of new information every so often. The exact release date of UltraSparc IV is no clearer - Sun says first half of 2004 - but the chip's speed has been disclosed. The dual core chip will start at 1.2GHz and be built on a 130 nanometer process.

Since the UltraSparc IV puts two UltraSparc III processor cores on the same chip, Sun is saying the new processor will preform about 1.6 to 2 times as fast as its predecessor. Come 2005, Sun will ship a version of the UltraSparc IV built on a 90 nanometer process that doubles the performance yet again.

These improvements are needed like never before.

In 2001, Sun's UltraSparc III chip won the Microprocessor Forum's award for best server/workstation chip but much has changed since then. IBM paved the way among large vendors with the first high-end dual core chip - Power 4, and Intel finally got this 64bit thing working with the third generation Itanium processor - Madison.

Ever since Power4 and the revamped Itanium 2 arrived, Sun's UltraSparc III has not garnered much praise at all. Sun still has an edge from the systems company angle in that its chips can work in huge SMPs, but in raw performance the UltraSparc III is long in the tooth.

To help pick up the pace, Sun is offering a relatively painless upgrade to its customers. The UltraSparc IV boards will plug right into existing UltraSparc III slots. Customers can even keep the servers up and running while changing out the kit. Since UltraSparc IV is a dual core chip, you more or less get two processors for every one you had before.

Add into this Sun's strengths in handling multithreaded software, and customers have a sweet upgrade indeed.

Like its predecessor, the UltraSparc IV is aimed at Sun's four processor and above servers. Sun has the UltraSparc IIIi and upcoming multicore Gemini/Niagra chips for lower end kit.

Being able to upgrade to UltraSparc IV without buying new server hardware should keep Sun customers on board for awhile longer. Why move away from UltraSparc right when the whole investment protection bit comes into play? This is, after all, an incredibly smooth transition when compared to what HP is asking Itanic customers to endure.

Sun is a bit vague about what happens after UltraSparc IV. The UltraSparc V chip is to be a whole new design and should arrive sometime in 2006. Sun says it has some interesting things planned for the chip but won't hint at what they might be.

For those interested in a more technical look at UltraSparc IV, Ace's Hardware has a pretty nice overview here.

Along with UltraSparc IV, Sun and TI are celebrating 15 years of partnership bliss. TI helps reduce some of the cost burdens Sun faces by designing and building its own processors.

TI plans to use a few tricks to help speed the UltraSparcs down the line. The company is touting its strained silicon technology and a solid 90 nanometer process as major strengths. ®

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