Sun Doubles Down on Niagara 2

By Andy Patrizio (Send Email)
Posted Aug 7, 2007


There is certainly no complacency in the chip business, what with new processors from IBM, Intel and AMD all coming this year, and Sun Microsystems is showing it's still in the game as well.

In the latest version of its 8-core processor, Sun doubled the threads, amped up floating point and added massive multithreading.

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Despite embracing AMD's Opteron and Intel's Xeon for its servers, Sun remains firmly committed to its SPARC processor family. On Tuesday Sun formally unveiled details of its latest "Niagara" processor, the UltraSPARC T2.

Developed under the codename Niagara 2, the T2 represents what Sun claims are improvements in every way in the line, including making it competitive in areas where it previously was not.

It's got Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for Insight64, singing Sun's praises. "As of last year, they staunched the revenue erosion and have been growing again, gaining share in Unix servers for the first time in many years. I think Sun is definitely back. This product is going to make them even stronger," he told Internetnews.com.

Sun has shrunk the die, from 90nm to 65nm, while packing a lot more on it. The UltraSPARC T2 contains all of the key functions of a server system -- processing, networking, security, floating point units, I/O and accelerated memory access -- on a single chip.

The T2 contains eight cores, twice as many as Intel's Xeon or Barcelona, AMD's upcoming server chip, and each core can handle eight threads each. The L2 cache has been updated from four banks to eight to handle the increased load of threads.

Each core runs at just two watts per thread, thanks to Sun's CoolThreads chip multithreading technology. This compares to 30 watts per thread on the Intel Xeon and 35 watts per thread on the IBM POWER6 processor.

More importantly for Sun, the T2 addresses what had been a major shortcoming in the Niagara chip, its floating point performance. The company had been literally advising customers with high FP workloads not to go with the T1 line, but that changes with the T2.

The T1 had a single floating point unit, which was shared by the eight cores. Now, each core has its own floating point unit and performance for each units is vastly improved compared to the old one. Sun is claiming top performance in both SpecINT and SpecFP benchmarks, surpassing even IBM's recently-released POWER6 processor.

"We are no longer cautioning the customer base into not using this chip for floating point loads," said Rick Heatherington, chief technology officer of Sun Microelectronics on a conference call briefing. "We're very competitive now in the technical market in terms of volume servers. So we wouldn't shy away from that market at all."

The UltraSPARC T2 also comes with dual, virtualizable, multithreaded 10 gigabits-per-second Ethernet ports with built-in packet classification for fast access, eight cryptographic acceleration units and 10 independent functions for security, quad memory controllers with more than 50 gigabytes per second of memory access.

Brookwood feels this will make the company much more competitive all around. "I think the original Niagara chip was pretty competitive but had a narrow area it could serve, in that it didn't have any capability for floating point," he said. "This thing will grab the multi-core title in both integer and floating point. This is a pretty neat chip."

As part of the launch, Sun its continuing its open source efforts surrounding its processors. The company released source code for the T1, referred to as OpenSPARC T1, and is doing the same for the T2.

The OpenSPARC T2 community will include a programmer's reference manual, microarchitecture specifications to document all of the features and functionalities of the T2 hardware, and a beta review to provide early access to a limited number of hardware designers and tool developers so developers can get a jump on T2 development.

Sun plans to ship Sun Fire servers with the UltraSPARC T2 processor and Solaris 10 in the second half of 2007.

This article was originally published on internetnews.

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