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Sun releases world's fastest chip - at 1.4GHz

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Never one to cower in the face of hyperbole, Sun Microsystems has come out touting the new eight-core UltraSPARC T2 - aka Niagara II - chip as the world's fastest microprocessor.

We've written so much about Niagara II that there's not much left with which to surprise you. As promised, the chip has just as many cores as Niagara I but doubles the thread count to 64. The chip also has one floating point unit per core, as opposed to Niagara I's lone floating point unit. And, lastly, the chip should debut, according to Sun, at 1.4GHz in systems shipping in the fourth quarter, although we've noted Sun already has Solaris support for a 1.5GHz version of the chip.

Beyond these basics, Niagara II does bring some fancier features. For one, Sun has included an on-chip 10GbE NIC. In addition, you'll find eight crypto acceleration units and eight lanes of PCI Express I/O, along with four memory controllers.

All of this horsepower should help Niagara II-based systems extend well beyond the web serving market that has been Niagara I's home.

Of course, the extra performance does come with costs. Niagara II will consume a max of 120 watts and an average of 95 watts whereas Niagara I ate through 70 watts on average. Sun likes to offset focus on this power increase by noting that Niagara II will need about 2 watts per thread, which is hard to argue against.

Sun is making the world's fastest microprocessor claim based on a pair of record-setting SPEC benchmark results - a 78.3 est. SPECint_rate2006 score and a 61.5 est. SPECfp_rate2006 score. But, er, lots of chips have leading benchmark scores and even more chips run at faster speeds than Niagara II, so we think the world's fastest claim is a bit too bold.

Sun likes to say that it's a systems company except when it comes to chips. The company this year recreated a separate microelectronics unit, so we find that group hunting down its pound of marketing flesh before the actual servers based on Niagara II ship. For those keeping track, Sun is expected to slot the chip into 1U and 2U boxes along with Sun's new T6300 blade servers.

The microelectronics group keeps bragging that it will soon have other vendors picking up the Niagara II design. Sun has released a programmer's reference manual and all of Niagara II's design specs to a select group of potential customers. In the coming months, Sun plans to provide the same information to anyone who asks for it.

Vendors and academic institutions could create their own versions of Niagara II for tasks such as VoIP, video streaming or networking. (This chap could probably use one of the chips too.)

The Niagara line remains unique in the market and has helped out Sun's bottom line. The company moves well over $100m of Niagara-based gear per quarter. Rivals such as Intel, AMD and IBM have yet to reveal anything close to the processors, although some of these rival chipmakers have noted interest in the products.

Sun will reveal details on the third-generation Niagara chip - code-named Victoria Falls - at the Hot Chips conference later this month. That chip should allow for at least two-socket servers and is set to arrive in the first half of 2008.

Later in 2008, Sun will dish out more of a mainstream multi-core part with the 16-core Rock line. ®

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