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The processor and operating system technologies that made Sun Microsystems one of the first big Silicon Valley startups got their start three decades inside the computer science departments of two universities. It was Stanford University for the hardware and the University of California at Berkeley for the operating system that would eventually become Solaris.

There is a feedback loop you can get with tech and academia. It starts there, gets commercialized, and then comes back as products that universities and colleges deploy to do research. That's why new technology that offers some sort of edge is always adopted by academia and government labs first. Take Linux-based supercomputer clusters as just one example.

The desire to use this feedback loop is why IT makers of all stripes are always eager to get their products to be the focal point of the teaching curricula and research projects at schools. Moreover, what students learn about in school is what they will tend to deploy (if they like it) when they enter the data center.

Today, Sun announced that it has partnered with Europractice, a non-profit organization that distributes and supports electronic design automation software at 650 universities across 38 countries in Europe. Europractice is managed by Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which is based in Didcot, Oxfordshire and which is part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, an organization commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II to promote scientific and engineering research and instruction in the United Kingdom.

Europractice, as the name suggests, has a pan-European mandate, and it was launched in 1995 to promote chip research in Europe. Europractice followed in the wake of the Eurochip project, itself established in the early 1990s to train students in the use of EDA tools and various chip designs.

Today, Europractice generates 87 per cent of its funding through the sale of EDA software licenses and support contracts and another 13 per cent from the European Union, and those funds are used to promote EDA at a slightly larger pool of universities. Some 417 universities participated in Eurochip, which distributed 16,000 copies of 20 different EDA programs and trained about 15,000 students, who in turn created some 2,700 different circuits as part of their studies.

As part of the three-year agreement between Sun and Europractice, the non-profit will distribute the Verilog files that describe the OpenSparc implementation of the "Niagara" Sparc T1 and T2 processors to the universities hooked into Europractice and will also help those schools establish OpenSparc as a reference platform upon which students can do research. The two will also be holding a design contest across the universities to help get students interested in tweaking the OpenSparc design in interesting ways.

According to Shrenik Mehta, senior director of front end technologies and the OpenSparc platform at Sun, says that close to 10,000 downloads of the Verilog OpenSparc T1 and T2 design files have been downloaded since Sun first started making them available in March 2005, and that there have been over 7,000 software downloads for the software related to the OpenSparc chip. This software includes the virtualization hypervisor that implements logical domain (LDom) partitions on the Niagara chips, the CoolTools power management software for the chips, and a chip simulator. So far, about 100 universities and colleges have played around with the OpenSparc designs. Sun obviously wants this to be a much larger number.

While the Sparc T1 and T2 designs have been open sourced, don't hold your breath waiting for open files for the Sparc T2+ or UltraSparc-RK "Rock" processor designs. Mehta says that while the bus and memory architecture of the Sparc T2+ chip are different, the cores are essentially the same as the T2, so Sun is not feeling much of an urge to share the extra goodies that allow for two-socket and four-socket Niagara boxes. And as for Rock Sparcs - if they indeed ever come to market, and some days it seems doubtful, just like the early years for the Itanium - all Mehta would say about the prospect of open sourcing the designs was that he could not comment on unannounced products. ®

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