Sun opens Niagara chip design to world+dog

Forces Oracle pricing refactorization

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Sun Microsystems today complemented the release of two new servers with some potentially significant changes to its processor architecture licensing policy and the way in which Oracle will price its database for the fresh gear.

We covered the Sun Fire T2000 and T1000 servers earlier today. What's important about the boxes in the context of the licensing and Oracle developments is their use of the eight-core UltraSPARC T1 - aka Niagara - processor. This chip marks the most major development in Sun's UltraSPARC line in a long, long time and gives it a part unlike any other offered by Tier 1 competitors.

Sun has moved to "open source" the UltraSPARC T1's design in a bid to generate outside interest around the chip. The exact details for this plan remain a bit thin, but Sun did say it would publish the specifications for "the source of the design expressed in Verilog, a verification suite and simulation models, instruction set architecture specification (UltraSPARC Architecture 2005) and a Solaris OS port" for the UltraSPARC T1. In so doing, other companies could create versions of the low-power chip to handle other software than the web and application server loads Sun has aimed at with its new servers.

"You don't know where it's going to go," said Sun's CEO Scott McNealy, during a product launch event in New York. "That's the beauty of it."

(McNealy, an avid Register reader, gave our site a fine plug during today's event. It's good to see he's not bitter about us leaking all the UltraSPARC T1 system details early.)

Simon Phipps, one of Sun's most prolific bloggers, shed some more light on the chip licensing change, saying "Verilog source code, tools and more behind the UltraSPARC T1 (the "design point") will be released under an OSI-approved open source license next year - OpenSPARC - and a community will hopefully be forming to use that design point for any purpose that's interesting."

One could imagine some folks in Asia dabbling with Sun's new design, although widespread interest in UltraSPARC T1 would seem to hinge on more work being done to port other operating systems than Solaris to the architecture. Sun noted it would welcome a Linux port. In the product details for the chip on Sun's web site, you'll see that UltraSPARC T1 is "hypervisor ready." This likely means that Sun has some hypervisor plans in store for UltraSPARC T1 and that most ports would be written to that software layer as opposed to the underlying chip.

On the database front, Oracle continues to baffle customers with its bizarre fractional pricing scheme to handle the emergence of multicore chips. On the mainstream dual-core products available from Sun, IBM, Intel and AMD, Oracle requires customers to multiply their total core count by .75 to figure out per processor licensing costs. With the eight-core UltraSPARC T1, Oracle has adopted a .25 model, so each of the new Sun servers will be priced as if it were a two-way machine. That's quite a bonus for Sun and its customers.

The Register labs team is busy working on an algorithm to crack Oracle's multifaceted pricing scheme. This process involves a substantial diorama investment coupled with a Googleplex-like Beowulf cluster implementation and some clip art. We'll be at this for awhile, as you can imagine.

Overall, it was great to see Sun return to its hardware roots and demonstrate that it does make use of such large research and development funds. The company's hardware pitches are much more palatable than many of its far-reaching software efforts. Server sales remain the key to a real Sun recovery, and it would seem that UltraSPARC T1 can only help this process. ®

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