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Sun cranks clocks on Sparc T2 and T2+

Revs LDom hypervisor

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The executives at server and operating system maker Sun Microsystems have been uncharacteristically quiet since the $5.6bn Oracle deal was announced back in April. And they've been silent since Sun's shareholders approved the deal last Thursday. This - from one of the most aggressive, PR-driven firms on the planet - is a bit disturbing. But Oracle is calling the shots, which is why the IT trade press had to figure out for itself that Sun has actually done a good thing and boosted the clock speeds on its 'Niagara' family of Sparc T2 and T2+ processors.

The Sparc T2 chips, known as 'Niagara-2' internally at Sun, are used in two-socket boxes. The Sparc T2+ chips are used in four-socket machines and are known as 'Victoria Falls.' The Sparc T2 chips came out in August 2007, and the T2+ chips made their debut in October 2008.

Sun has positioned the Sparc T series of chips as leaders in performance per watt, saying it offers better bang for the buck than RISC or Itanium alternatives running Unix. For customers with Sparc-Solaris workloads, the Niagara servers offer compatibility with prior Sun UltraSparc and Fujitsu Sparc64 chips, which means customers do not have to recompile their code for the x64 variant of Solaris 10 to get a competitive entry or midrange Sparc box.

Both Sun and Fujitsu have been reselling Sparc T-based machines for the past two years, just as they both sell bigger Sparc Enterprise machines based on the quad-core Sparc64 VII processors made by Fujitsu. The T2 and T2+ chips have eight cores and eight threads per core, making it the most highly cored and threaded chip in commercial data centers today.

What Sun has not been able to do easily is get the clock speed of the chips up, and that's because it is hitting the same thermal ceiling as other chip makers. According to Sun, a 1.4 GHz Sparc T2 chip with all eight cores being stressed by an application can hit as high as 123 watts, and even during normal loading it hits 95 watts. That's about what a quad-core 'Nehalem EP' Xeon does.

The move from eight-core, four-thread Sparc T1 chips to the eight-core, eight thread T2 chips did not much change in clock speed, although the T2 did has twice as many threads and could be used in two-way machines, which gave systems about twice the oomph on workloads. Specifically, the Sparc T1 topped out at 1.2 GHz and had a 1 GHz variant. The T2 chips had a top speed of 1.4 GHz, with a 1.2 GHz variant for customers who wanted lower thermals and a 900 MHz experimental chip for even lower thermals (such as in blade servers).

Starting today, Sun and its fab partner, Texas Instruments, can deliver Sparc T2 and T2+ chips running at 1.6 GHz. Representatives from Sun were not available as we went to press with this story, so it is unclear if Sun has talked TI into doing some sort of process shrink to get the extra 14.3 per cent increase in clock speed. Considering the financial shape of Sun, it is far more likely that TI is just doing deep sorts on the Sparc T bins to find chips that can run at the higher clock speed. Hopefully, they can do so at a slightly lower voltage than the standard Sparc T2 and T2+ chips and therefore stay within the power budget.

It looks like Sun is also supporting 800 MHz DDR2 main memory in the Sparc T2 and T2+ servers too. Prior machines used 667 MHz DDR2 main memory.

Sun is charging a pretty big premium for the extra Sparc T speed bump. A T5440 server with four 1.4 GHz T2+ chips with all 256 threads activated in the four-socket box, plus 128 GB of memory and two 146 GB disks has a list price of $89,895. Jacking that machine up to four 1.6 GHz T2+ chips with the same hardware otherwise boosts the price to $115,695. That's a 28.7 per cent price hike for 14.3 per cent more clocks. On a two-socket T5240 machine using the 1.4 GHz T2 chips, a machine with 128 threads, 64 GB of memory and two 146 GB disks costs $45,495, but jumping up to the 1.6 GHz chips raises the price by 24.2 per cent to $56,495.

On the single-socket T5220 server, a machine with 64 threads running at 1.4 GHz with 32 GB of memory and two 146 GB disks costs $27,895, and Sun boosts the configuration up to 64 GB with the 1.6 GHz versions of the T2 chip and raises the price to $45,895. It is not clear what Sun is charging for 800 MHz DDR2 memory, but it is around $100 per GB on the street for 667 MHz chips for the T5220. Which means it might be as high as $150 to $200 per GB for Sun list price and then another premium for the higher memory speed. Call it around $8,000 for the incremental memory in the fatter 1.6 GHz configuration of the T5220. That would put the price premium for the 1.6 GHz chips in this single-socket box at around 36 per cent, not including the cost of the extra memory.

This is a lot to pay for extra performance. But that is what all chip makers do with their top bins.

On Tuesday, Sun also updated its Logical Domain (LDom) partitioning technology with release 1.2. The updated LDom software can power down unused Sparc T cores that are not being used and has a new set of built-in configuration tools that make it easier to create and deploy LDoms on the Sparc T machines. (You obviously don't need the faster processors to get the new LDom software, and Sun distributes this LDom code as a patch to the Sparc T systems for free).

The virtual networking support in LDoms now has support for jumbo frames, which makes big file transfers go faster and reduces CPU overhead. Sun has also added domain mobility with LDom 1.2, and presumably, this means that domains can be live migrated between two physical Sparc T boxes. Sun has rolled up a physical-to-virtual converter into LDom 1.2 as well, which speeds up the conversion of applications running on legacy Sparc platforms to virtual ones that can be deployed on the Niagara family of servers.

The LDom 1.1 update came out in November 2008. It included performance enhancements, virtual I/O dynamic reconfiguration, hybrid I/O for network interfaces (allowing a physical NIC to be tied to a virtual machine to boost performance), and virtual disk failover.

LDom is software that should be running on all Sparc servers and should have been on them five years ago because it is something all Sparc machines have needed. It will be interesting to see if LDoms survive the Oracle ax. ®

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