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Sun's R&D Spectrum

The company's lab is working on a broad range of technologies, from coin-size Web servers to 4-PFLOPS supercomputers.

By Gary Anthes
June 6, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld -

Glenn T. Edens, director of Sun Labs
Glenn T. Edens, director of Sun Labs
Image Credit: Gary H. Anthes
Mention Sun Microsystems Inc. to someone, and it's likely to evoke images of high-powered workstations, dot-com servers and Java. But a peek inside Sun Microsystems Laboratories reveals a much broader array of emerging technologies and hints at a new Sun rising.
Sun Labs in Menlo Park, Calif., employs some 200 scientists and engineers and spends $80 million to $100 million a year. Its projects include sensors, supercomputers, high-speed networking, optical interconnects, third-generation Web technologies, Java and more. Its mission: "To solve hard technical problems brought to us by our customers," says Glenn T. Edens, director of Sun Labs.
Making the Switch
For example, Internet switches capable of handling tens to hundreds of terabits of traffic per second today cost millions of dollars and fill entire rooms. But if an ongoing project at Sun Labs is successful, such switches will have dimensions and price tags more like those of PCs. "It's a high-risk, high-return project. We think it will work, but we don't actually know," Edens says.
Robert Drost, a research scientist at Sun Labs
Robert Drost, a research scientist at Sun Labs
Image Credit: Gary H. Anthes

Ultracheap, high-capacity switches are just one potential application of a technology called proximity communication that Sun announced last fall. Proximity I/O, as it's also known, can enable processor chips to communicate 60 times faster and with 30 times less energy than is possible using conventional means.
"Proximity allows us to very nicely spread a switch out over a number of chips and have enough bandwidth between them so we can have a distributed switch," says Robert Drost, a research scientist at Sun Labs. "Proximity" refers to the positioning of two chips extremely close to each other, each with transmitter and receiver circuits. Data is sent across the gap by "capacitive coupling," which is coupling between charged particles that are at rest. It's simple in principle, but it's devilishly difficult to align the chips to tolerances of a few microns.
Sun Labs is experimenting with the use of chip proximity to enable chips to communicate faster through
Sun Labs is experimenting with the use of chip proximity to enable chips to communicate faster through "capacitive coupling."
Image Credit: Gary H. Anthes



In proximity I/O, the long communication paths on printed circuit boards with soldered connections and wires are replaced by the tiny, simple interchip gaps. "When processors went from 10 MHz to 3 GHz, they didn't become 30 times faster, because the bandwidth didn't increase by 30 times; it increased by two or three times," Drost says. "[Proximity I/O] will finally realize the potential performance on the chip."
In addition, he says, very fast interchip communications could reduce the need


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