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Sun's chip gurus theorize about obliterating IBM and Intel

Nearing proximity

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Sun's researchers, for example, showed off a prototype switch last week, during a Labs open house for reporters.

The switch code-named Sedna relies on two logic chips linked to three so-called bridge chips with the proximity communications technology.

“One benefit is the I/O bandwidth increase that we get from this technology,” said Sun researcher Hans Eberle. “We achieve up to 10 terabits per second per square mm of chip overlap.”

Sun's prototype system is based on the ACTA telco standard and has four 10GigE ports and layer 2 switching. It works with off-the-shelf line cards and Sun's proprietary switch blade.

Should all go according to plan, Sun could build a flat, single-stage switch fabric capable of scaling to thousands of ports with multiple Tbps of throughput.

(It should be noted that, er, the switch wasn't in working order when we saw it and that Sun reckons a really solid test machine won't arrive for 18 months or so.)

A few microns between victory and defeat

As mentioned, Sun is still concerned about the packaging issues related to the proximity communications technology.

On the plus side, Sun's technology would allow for less wires, which would translate into smaller chips. In addition, Sun would not need the ceramic and plastic packaging used with today's chips. So, it could remove faulty chips or insert faster chips with relative ease.

On the downside is the alignment issue and concerns about removing heat form the systems.

Sun had promised the proximity communications as part of its bid for a lucrative DARPA high performance computing contract. That promise included linking second generation Rock processors with the technology. By our estimates, that puts Sun three to four years away from using proximity communications. It would also seem to indicate quite a bit of confidence on Sun's part for the technology.

One researcher described this technology as "a really big deal” for Sun. The company has Sutherland's sweeping patents and some patents purchased from MIT researchers backing up its attack. So, if the technology works as hoped, Sun would enjoy a big time lead over rivals.

The same researcher confessed that Sun could find itself well behind the competition if the proximity communications technology fails. Sun would need to catch up with IBM and others' multi-chip module expertise in a hurry.

That Moore's Law thing

In the best of all possible worlds, Sun thinks that proximity communications technology could take some pressure off chip makers.

Moore's Law gives us more transistor density every 18 to 24 months. Keeping up with the law requires chip makers to spend billions of dollars and seemingly rewrite the laws of physics ever two to four years.

Sun argues that Fabs could worry less about, say, what follows 45nm and focus more on linking 45nm parts together with proximity communications to keep up with Moore's Law.

"Instead of moving along with the Fab technology, you can stay at 45nm and just put more silicon in your system,” said Robert Drost, a Sun researcher.

We see Drost's point. Intel, however, would certainly argue for adding more transistors per chip at the same time as linking chips together. But then, Intel is so damned ambitious.

Sun also plans to make use of technology such as 3-D memory and optical networking with its proximity technology-based parts. The company expects to reveal more about its packaging progress next year. ®

Bootnote

A number of other research projects caught our eye while at Sun.

Coders will want to check out Fortess - a programming language for high performance computing applications. This work also grew out of Sun's failed DARPA bid and should help developers write multi-threaded code.

The Celeste peer-to-peer storage project seemed moving as well, although there was no one around at the booth to tell us about the work. Tsk, tsk.

And then there was the transactional memory stuff that went way over our head but is "very important," according to some smart folks.

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