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Sun shelves UltraSPARC V in favor of the great unknown

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Sun Microsystems' CEO Scott McNealy often says his company will not back down from spending on research and development, but that is exactly what Sun has done with the cancellation of the UltraSPARC V and Gemini processors, The Register can confirm first.

Sun is laying off at least 500 engineers in Chelmsford, Massachusetts and Sunnyvale, California who worked on projects relating to the UltraSPARC V chip and its chipset code-named "Eagle," sources said. Some workers, however, will be reassigned to other positions within the company. The layoffs make up a portion of the 3,300 staff axed last week, when Sun announced it would take a Q3 loss of up to $810m.

When pushed by El Reg, Sun confirmed that UltraSPARC V - code-named Millennium is no more. In addition, Sun said it would cancel the upcoming multicore Gemini processor. Oddly, Gemini was once said to be due this year.

"Last week, Sun announced that it would be making appropriate and timely decisions to get the company structured and positioned to achieve its financial goals in FY05," Sun said. "In light of that, and in order to accelerate the development of next-generation Throughput Computing systems, Sun has decided to discontinue certain UltraSPARC projects (specifically Millennium and Gemini)."

The end of UltraSPARC V signals a couple of pretty major shifts in Sun's strategy.

In February, Sun slipped the cancellation of UltraSPARC VI past a sedated press corps. With a wink and a nod, Sun executives said a new processor line called the "Rock" family would appear just about the same time UltraSPARC VI was due. The Rock processors are meant to meld standard high-end RISC processor features with lower-end multicore designs.

The word of UltraSPARC V's demise seems to indicate Sun sees a move to the Rock coming faster than anticipated. Sun's Austin offices working on the multicore Niagra processors did not suffer any layoffs, according to our sources. This would point to a full commitment to the belief that groups of low-power processors bunched together will be preferred over hulking, fast CPUs.

Looking over the competitive landscape such a move more or less makes sense. That is unless you are a concerned customer who has never even heard of this Rock thing.

Sun has just started rolling out its UltraSPARC IV processor, which will last until 2006. By that time, both IBM and Intel are due to have high-end chips of their own that contain many processor cores. It's likely that delays getting UltraSPARC chips out the door simply pushed V past its prime. Well past.

But, until now, Sun and McNealy in particular had given no signal that the UltraSPARC V's future was in question. Over the past year, Sun said time and again that UltraSPARC V would arrive one day and do so in style. In fact, when Sun announced the "Rock" family back in February, the UltraSPARC V chip was still on the company's public roadmap. And Sun loudly cheered the oncoming Gemini onslaught.

However, given Sun's recent financial struggles, the company must have decided that enough was enough. (Or McNealy started seeing a convincing shrink - Ed) UltraSPARC V was set to be a complete redesign - unlike the UltraSPARC IV, which simply combines two UltraSPARC III cores. The redesign would require a new chipset, new processor boards and a major overhaul of customers' hardware.

Beyond that, the UltraSPARC V would go into Sun's large multiprocessor systems. But the multicore designs discussed by Sun create a type of multiprocessor "server on a chip." Maybe the thinking is that customers won't need what is typically conceived of as a massive SMP box.

Sun, it appears, is very likely heading toward a stronger partnership with Fujitsu, as was predicted earlier this year. Sun could well take care of key customers using large SMPs by turning to Fujitsu for UltraSPARC help. Fujitsu makes its own line of SPARC chips and has a rich history with large Unix boxes and mainframes. We hear Sun's deal with Fujitsu is code-named "Falcon."

UltraSPARC V's death triggers yet another crow eating moment for McNealy. Over the past year, Sun has given in and started selling both Intel and AMD-based servers. Then, last week, Sun let Microsoft off the hook by accepting a $2bn cash infusion.

If this goes much farther, life may well begin imitating art. If you can call that art.

Without question, screams of "I told you so" have started ringing out from every financial analyst HQ on the planet. ®

Related stories

'What do we stand for now?' ask Sun staff
Sun job losses: Scotland spared
Why Sun threw in the towel in Mankind vs. Microsoft
Sun waves goodbye to 3,300 staff
Sun settles with MS for $2bn (ish)
Sun tries UltraSPARC IV temptation
Sun shelves UltraSPARC VI in favor of The Rock
Sun bets future on US IV and Opteron boxes

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