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Sun faces up to the 64 thread question with T2+

Nehalem x64 boxes expected next year

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Analysis You wouldn't know it by the revenue and profit figures, but Sun Microsystems is managing a fair amount of churn in its Sparc and X64 server product lines.

It is something of an accomplishment for Sun that it has been able to embrace x64 chips in its "Galaxy" boxes, shift its entry and mid-range customers to its "Niagara" class of Sparc T series platforms, and essentially ditch its own UltraSparc-IV+ platforms for Sparc64 machines designed primarily by Japanese partner Fujitsu - while keeping revenues more or less the same.

That's not good enough for Wall Street, which wants Sun to grow sales and generate profits rather than flat line quarter after quarter.

For those of you with long memories, IBM didn't do any better than Sun is doing now in managing product transitions. In the early 1990s IBM faced the collapse of proprietary mainframe and minicomputers as Unix servers and then x86 machinery took off.

Indeed, IBM was a hell of a lot closer to bankruptcy than anyone might care to think about when Lou Gerstner took over on April Fool's Day in 1993. Gerstner's genius? He kept IBM together rather than breaking it apart and then made customer service a business, rather than an attitude for taking care of customers who bought hardware and software.

John Fowler, Executive Vice President, Systems, Sun Microsystems

John Fowler

Sun is juggling some tough transitions right now, and John Fowler, the executive vice president of Sun's Systems group, which creates servers and storage, is the first to admit it. But Sun is, as ever, hopeful that engineering prowess will get server revenues growing again.

'Imminent to ship'

According to Fowler, the four-socket variant of the "Victoria Falls" Sparc T2+ processor is "imminent to ship". This processor first appeared in two-socket "Niagara" class servers, code-named Maramba, back in early April.

To make the Sparc T2+ chip, Sun took a Sparc T2 chip and took out two on-chip memory controllers and the integrated "Neptune" 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports. It replaced them with symmetric multiprocessing links that use some of the memory lanes on the processor to lash the two caches in the chips together into a two-way processor complex. Each Sparc T2 and T2+ chip has eight Sparc cores, with eight threads each, for a total of 64 threads.

Cores run at 1.2 GHz or 1.4 GHz. With the four-socket Victoria Falls machine, Sun will be able to put 256 threads in a 4U box purportedly code-named "Botaka". The four processors in this impending server do not link together gluelessly (as they did in the two-socket box using T2 chips), but rather are connected through a crossbar switch named "Zambezi".

And once you have a crossbar switch, of course, there is no reason to stop at four sockets - and perhaps Sun won't. Fowler is not saying, and sources at Sun speaking earlier this year said larger T2+ boxes were not on the way.

"We are positioning this Victoria Falls server as a mid-range platform," says Fowler. "We're going to see a resurgence in the mid-range, which has been a pretty rugged place for a lot of product lines."

Sun needs a resurgence. Servers using the Sparc T series of processors offer throughput and performance per watt that is comparable or better than X64 iron, and thet have the added benefit of being binary compatible with fleets of ancient Sparc iron out there in the world. But this business runs only at an annualized rate of about $1.3bn a year. Sun needs this to be a several billion dollars a year to be a profitable company and worth all the engineering effort.

It would have helped Sun's cause immensely to have gotten the UltraSparc RK "Rock" 16-core processors into the field on time - a time when competitors also stumbled. Intel has delayed its "Tukwila" quad-core Itaniums (coming maybe early next year) and IBM's was late with its dual-core Power6 chips (really only shipping early this year in volume) and therefore its eight-core Power7 chips (now expected in early 2010).

The "Rock" chips are for mid-range and high-end servers that should have shipped about now, but were pushed out a year to the second half of 2008 last year. Sun has been vague about what is wrong enough to have delayed the machines, but "Supernova" systems using the Rock processors are implementing transactional memory - the first commercial servers to use this untested technology - and the Rock chips are implementing a new approach to instruction pipeline efficiency called scout threads, which is also untested.

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