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Sun killing 'Rock' Sparc chip?

House cleaning before Ellison move-in

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The word on the street today is that server maker Sun Microsystems - which is in the midst of being eaten by software giant Oracle for $5.6bn - has formally killed off the 16-core "Rock" UltraSparc-RK processor that has been in development for more than five years.

The official response from Michelle Parkinson, the spokesperson for Sun's Systems group, was that Sun had "no comment re: Rock," which is exactly what you would expect from a company that is in the middle of being acquired and which is cleaning house before Larry Ellison and a whole bunch of Oraclers move in.

Sun has two more weeks before its fiscal year ends and another four weeks before Sun shareholders vote on the Oracle takeover, and it is hard to believe it will close out the year on a financial high given its woes, the economy, the Oracle acquisition, and all of the uncertainties that has introduced in the customer base.

A faithful source - a former Sun employee who requested anonymity and who still has deep ties with the server maker - said that he was told by a high-ranking Sun exec this morning that the Rock chip was canceled. The New York Times is also running a story that cites two people familiar with Sun's plans (and who also requested anonymity) as saying that Sun has canceled the Rock chip project.

If the Rock processors and their affiliated "Supernova" servers are indeed dead, they are dead because Sun has to kill it off. If Sun kills it off before Oracle completes the deal, Oracle can still say that it believes in and will invest in the Sparc hardware business. That's what Larry Ellison, Oracle's chief executive officer, told Reuters in a recent interview. By the way, as Sun revealed in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Oracle didn't originally want Sun's hardware business.

If Rock is dead, it's a safe guess that Oracle will continue to partner with Fujitsu for midrange and high-end Sparc64 servers and that it will probably try to position the future "Niagara-III" 16-core Sparc T series chips - if they survive the knife - as the future for Sparc computing. Expect Oracle to emphasize Solaris on x64 chips, particularly with 64-core, 128-thread Intel "Nehalem EX" servers due early next year using Intel's own "Boxboro" chipset. Oracle will be able to show off some pretty scalable Solaris iron - even if it does force some customers into doing a recompile.

The death of the Rock processor will come after plenty of trials and tribulations for Sun in the chip racket. Sun's UltraSparc-II processors, the real dot in the dot.com Internet revolution, were excellent, competitively priced, and came to market without too much drama. The UltraSparc-III processors, which were developed in the late 1990s, came to market late and underpowered in the early 2000s, giving IBM's dual-core Power4 processors a chance to start eating market share as Sun dropped support for x86 chips with its Solaris platform and kept its Sparc-based server prices too high to compete.

A few years later, the UltraSparc-V chip was killed, maybe because it was too ambitious for Sun's declining development budget. Sun threw together a stop-gap dual-core UltraSparc-IV chip and started investing heavily in the multicore and multithreaded Niagara and Rock processors. To bridge the gap between UltraSparc-IV chips and the Rocks, Sun partnered with Fujitsu to resell its Sparc64 SMP boxes. Wouldn't you know it: Those were late coming to market too, as Fujitsu drove off its Sparc64 roadmap. The Rock chips and their servers were supposed to come to market in the second half of 2008, but were delayed at the end of 2007 and pushed out to the second half of 2009.

Considering how close this product was supposed to be to launching - within the next four to five months - and how much money Sun had invested already, something must be truly wrong with the Rock chip or the servers that use it for Sun to cancel it.

Now, Sun doesn't really have a second half of 2009 - unless by some warping into bizarroworld, Sun's shareholders don't approve of the Oracle deal. And it seems likely that Rock chips and their Supernova boxes don't have a second half either. ®

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