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Sun readies entry Sparc T2 kicker

Cheaper networking for the server

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The details are a bit sketchy, but server maker Sun Microsystems is apparently getting ready to launch a rejiggered version of its Sparc T2 server platform that will implement an external network interface instead of using the on-chip (and very fast) networking in original Sparc T2 servers.

Presumably, this engineering change will allow Sun to sell the forthcoming member of the "Niagara" server family at a cheaper price.

The new server, code-named "Tenaya," is based on the "Huron" Sparc T2 servers announced back in October 2007. With the Sparc T2 chips (which went by the code-name "Niagara-2"), the processor included an eight-core, 64-thread Sparc processor and an integrated pair of 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports coming right off the chip. This integrated 10GE networking is based on the "Project Neptune" 10 GE chip that Sun has designed itself.

The Niagara-2 chip has 4 MB of L2 cache, an integrated memory controller that can drive 16 FB-DIMM memory slots, and an interface to one x8 PCI-Express slot. This chip can only be used in single-socket boxes, code-named "Huron" (1U) and "Michigan" (2U), and has therefore been positioned for infrastructure workloads, such as Web and file serving. This is especially true since the "Victoria Falls" Sparc T2+ quad-socket servers were announced in mid-October. There is also a line of two-socket boxes, using the Sparc T2+ chips, that came to market in April of this year.

With the future Tenaya platform, which will be sold as the Sparc Enterprise T3120, Sun will be externalizing the network interface using a companion chipset from Broadcom rather than using the XAUI (X Attachment Unit Interface) integrated on the original Sparc T2 systems. The T3120 will support plain-old Gigabit Ethernet ports, and presumably at least two of them and maybe, if Sun is consistent across its servers, four.

It is hard to say how much less costly the T3120 will be, but the current T5120 1U server using the Sparc T2 chip list for $8,995, and that seems like a lot for a single socket server no matter how efficient it may be. The older T2000 servers (using the Sparc T1 chips with half as many threads and in twice as much space) are still in the Sun catalog for $6,995. I have a hard time believing anyone would pay $2,000 for one of these old machines - if that. And I also think that Sun is trying to figure out ways to get the Niagara entry prices way down to better compete, and stripping out that expensive networking for customers who do not need 10GE is one way to do it.

There is no indication that Sun has tweaked the Sparc T2 chip itself to remove the integrated networking features, but it is possible. Then again, it is hard to believe Sun would have the money to run another chip through the mill - even a tweaked one - and try to push it through the Texas Instruments fab. ®

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