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Sun Labs edges toward practicality

Games, Solaris and DARPA - Oh my!

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Sun is competing against Cray and IBM for one of the most lucrative government contracts in recent memory, from DARPA. The vendors have been tasked with creating systems that will allow the US to skip ahead a supercomputing generation with systems in 2010 that are 10x to 40x faster than today's. It looks like DARPA will hand out the deal to two of the three vendors and announce the winners next month.

Sun's design, as far we know, centers around the second version of its upcoming Rock processor. The first iteration of Rock - due out in 2008 - should have 16 cores, and the 2010 version may well have 16 cores too. All told, Sun expects to handle more than a million software threads over tens of thousands of cores with its DARPA box.

Much of the technology Sun has crammed into the DARPA bid is mentioned here.

There are still some large gaps in the plan that Sun won't discuss. For example, our sources have revealed that Sun was working on derivatives of the multi-core Niagara chip that would function as co-processors for Rock. Such chips could be used to speed up certain high performance computing workloads and give Sun an edge over rivals. During the recent round of layoffs, Sun cut back on one of the main co-processor projects dubbed Jupiter.

A Sun labs staffer declined to say what the company now plans to use on the co-processor front, although he did confirm that Sun expects some manner of co-processor in the DARPA system.

The US hopes that Sun, IBM and Cray will deliver designs that stay well ahead of Japanese and eventually Chinese supercomputing efforts for years to come.

Embedded Slowlaris

Solaris on PowerPC? Yes, we've been there before, but Sun is banging away at the idea again.

A number of people went at putting Solaris on Power back in the mid-1990s with not too much to show from their efforts.

"This idea has a different feel now though," said Tom Riddle, a coder in Sun Labs.

Riddle is angling Solaris on PowerPC at the embedded market with embedded standing for anything that isn't a general purpose computer or server. Solaris 10, in particular, is well suited for the embedded crowd due to its stability and a wealth of features beyond those in Linux that can be tapped by developers.

The basic port work still needs to be completed. From there, Riddle hopes to create a smaller, lightweight kernel, some new power management tools and real-time function improvements that will make Solaris better suited for the embedded space.

There's a lot of momentum behind PowerPC right now and a decent amount behind Solaris 10, so we'll see how this plays out. Although, it's hard to see how Solaris offers a huge edge over Linux in the embedded market.

Labbing around

The latest visit to Sun Labs comes after Sun announced 5,000 redundancies and vowed to cut back on non-essential spending. Close to 200 workers make up Sun Labs, and they consume close to 2 per cent of Sun's annual $2bn R&D spend.

The likes of Sun, IBM and HP (ignoring Itanium and Mark Hurd) deserve tremendous credit for sticking with their ambitious R&D programs during a business era that would prefer they give up on innovation. The US has an incredible track record of turning R&D - funded by the government and corporations - into major new businesses. This tradition complements the use of venture capital.

It's hard to imagine how the US can continue to compete against the low wages and abundance of engineers in Asia without relying on its R&D and venture capital strengths. Some element of the American character thrives in the R&D-backed entrepreneurial arena.

Seeing fellows such as Bob Sproull and Ivan Sutherland at Sun Labs provides some hope that US companies can push forward on the R&D front with great success. ®

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