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Sun will Rock in 2009

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Sun's president and chief executive officer Jonathan Schwartz declared yesterday that the company's long-planned Rock processors remain on track for release this year.

This is good news for Sun watchers. With two rounds of layoffs that server and operating system maker Sun Microsystems announced in 2008 biting into the company's research, development, sales, and marketing, Sun's customers needed to know which projects and products will live and which will die. Now Schwartz has told them.

A little more than a year ago, Sun delayed the launch of its 16-core Rock UltraSparc-RK processors and the related Supernova systems, which had been originally planned to be delivered in the second half of 2008 but were pushed out to the second half of 2009.

There has been a lot of talk about whether Sun would achieve this revised launch schedule. There have also been suggestions that Rock might be dead, like UltraSparc-V and UltraSparc-VI before it.

Yesterday, however, during a conference call with Wall Street analysts, Sun's president and chief executive officer Jonathan Schwartz made a short and sweet statement intended to quell any worries about Rock.

"I think we've said to plan on it for later this year, and we are still on track," Schwartz said.

There you have it. Rock worries are over.

It's taken a long time to get to his point, however. Just as Schwartz was ascending to power at Sun back in 2004, Sun announced its intention to take the multithreading approach embodied in its Niagara chips up a notch with the Rock designs. That February it killed off the planned UltraSparc-VI chips, then scrapped the UltraSparc-V only a few months later.

A few months after that, the Sun-Fujitsu alliance announced its intention to bridge the gap between Sun's own dual-core UltraSparc-IV+ chips and the Rock chips. The Fujitsu machines are based on dual-core and quad-core Sparc64 systems designed and manufactured by Fujitsu.

The initial Niagara chips had eight processor cores, each with four execution threads. Today's Sparc T chip series offers up to eight Sparc cores with eight threads each in a four-socket system - a total of 256 threads in one box. The Rock chips, which taped out two years ago, include several new technologies that Sun hopes will give it a competitive advantage in the midrange and high-end of the server market.

Among those technologies, the two biggies are scout threads for the Sparc cores and transactional memory, both of which aim to boost the performance of machines more than can clock speeds and execution threads alone. The Rock chips are expected to have 16 Sparc cores, each with two execution threads.

These Sparc Enterprise machines, as the Sparc64-based machines are co-branded by Sun and Fujitsu, currently account for the vast majority of Sun's enterprise-server sales (as distinct from Niagara chip multithreading, or CMT, sales). In fact, Sun has written off its inventory of UltraSparc-IV+ iron.

Yesterday, Sun said that billings for these big Unix boxes fell by 32 per cent in the second fiscal quarter ended December, down to $662m. Sales had already fallen by 27 per cent in the first fiscal quarter to $576m. Clearly, the economic meltdown has been hard on Sun's big Unix-box sales.

But there could be other factors at work.

If Rock is truly on track for shipment later this year, and if Sun has been preselling the boxes, and if Sun's biggest customers are waiting until the economy rebounds - or at least stabilizes - before committing to big-iron acquisitions, there might be a depressing effect on sales of current Sparc Enterprise servers.

If Rock machines will provide the kind of price/performance boost that the Niagaras had over entry-level Sparc boxes using a mix of UltraSparc-IIIi and UltraSparc-IV+ processors, a wait-and-see attitude could have added to Sun's woes in fiscal Q1 and Q2 regarding Sparc Enterprise sales.

If this is the case, Sun's top brass could have said something about it - but this all could be good news, after all.

Maybe not so much for Fujitsu, of course. ®

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