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Marvell gets [SIC] on Sun's NIC

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Sun Microsystems's new chip unit has wasted no time picking up a customer. The company today revealed that Marvell will craft a set of products built around one of Sun's networking chip designs.

The Sun product in question is the infamous [SIC] NIC – aka the the Sun x8 Express Dual 10 Gigabit Ethernet Fiber XFP Low Profile – aka 'Project Neptune.' Sun released the 10GbE NIC (network interface card) in February, and now Marvell plans to pump out its own gear based on the ASIC behind Sun's design. While both companies declined to disclose fine details behind their financial arrangement, Sun did say that it will collect royalties from Marvell.

Last month, Sun created a separate chip unit under the leadership of longtime processor guru David Yen. The company hopes the chip group will attract a number of customers as it looks to license out designs for multi-core processors and new networking gear.

The [SIC] NIC handles software threads in a virtualized fashion. It has 24 different pipes for various software threads, which makes it possible to, say, run 20 application threads and one e-mail traffic thread across the silicon.

The threading magic requires Sun's Solaris operating system and a specialized set of software code-named Crossbow. So, a win for Sun's chip unit is also a win for the Solaris camp, since Marvell will no doubt begin its effort with Sun's Solaris drivers in hand rather than charging into unchartered territory with Windows or Linux.

“Sun can benefit by the volume Marvell will be driving,” Yen told us. “There are some financial advantages with royalties coming on the revenue side. But, personally, I view the strategic value as being higher than any near-term financial benefit.”

Marvell has committed to releasing a number of products based on Sun's technology and will aim the hardware at “Sun and other server OEMs,” according to a spokeswoman. “These products will broaden Marvell's LAN product portfolio into the server segment, beyond enterprise and consumer PC markets,” she said.

Both Sun and Marvell pitch the [SIC] NIC as a solution to the bottlenecks being created by thread-heavy software and multi-core processors.

“This is a six-lane highway in each direction,” Yen said. “It really smooths the flow from the software jobs coming in all the way to the processing center.”

On the long-term licensing front, Sun hopes to generate broader interest around its multi-core UltraSPARC T1 chip. It has open sourced the processor's design and is working with universities such as Stanford and UC Santa Cruz to have professors and students develop their own versions of the product. Along those lines, Sun has developed single-core, single-thread versions of the UltraSPARC T1 that can fit into FPGAs “giving students room to add whatever features they would like to experiment with,” Yen said.

Buoyed by its early success with the new chip unit, Sun may consider reviving some processor efforts. The company, for example, scrapped a project code-named Jupiter that would have provided a co-processor for Sun's upcoming Rock-based servers. While not committing to Jupiter in particular, Yen did say that Sun has more room to look at such research now, if it thinks a broader audience might flock to the products.

“I think there is a new perspective,” Yen said.

Marvell declined to provide a possible ship date for its line of [SIC] NIC products. ®

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