Sun's 16-core Rock processor due in mid-2008

The company's multicore chip road map bets on parallel apps

Sun Microsystems Inc. has outlined an UltraSparc road map that bets on a future for applications that can effectively parcel out tasks among multiple cores. But Sun's plans may pose issues for users, especially those with upgrade plans over the next two years.

The major UltraSparc processor workhorses in the Sun line today, such as UltraSparc IV+, will be succeeded by what Sun calls its "Rock" processor, which will have up to 16 cores and is aimed at applications that need a lot of memory and number-crunching ability, such as databases.

But Rock isn't due until the middle of 2008. Sun hasn't said when it will stop making improvements to its UltraSparc IV+ chip, but this summer it will introduce its Advanced Product Line (APL) servers, which it is jointly producing with Fujitsu Ltd.

The APL servers will replace Sun's existing Sun Fire systems and Fujitsu's UltraSparc-based PrimePower systems. Whether Sun users who need upgrades should buy the APL systems or wait for the Rock chip is "a function of timing," said Marc Tremblay, senior vice president and chief architect for Sun's system group. If customers need an UltraSparc upgrade after next summer, they will probably buy an APL "if [they] cannot wait another year," he said.

Sun detailed the product road map as part of an announcement that had completed the tape-out, or final design stage, of the Rock. "For us, the tape-out of this chip after 1,000 people-years of engineering demonstrates a commitment that we are on schedule," said Tremblay.

While Rock "hits the midrange and high-end pretty hard" of its existing UltraSparc product, Tremblay isn't saying that Rock is a complete replacement of the APL.

Richard Partridge, an analyst at Ideas International in Port Chester, N.Y., said that there is more than hardware timing involved for Sun customers in a decision to buy an APL or a Rock processor.

Sun is betting that there will be an adequate number of parallel applications by mid-2008 and beyond that will be able to take advantage of Rock's multicore design. It could well turn out in mid-2008 that a large number of its customers will need the APL UltraSparc, because their applications can't utilize large numbers of cores. For those users, a decision as to what chip to upgrade to will depend on what applications it will support, said Partridge, who said Sun may not feel confident enough just yet to predict the application outlook.

By offering APL as well as Rock, Sun is "moving in a direction that they believe is the right direction, but they at least recognize that they need a fallback plan," said Partridge.

In other chip developments, Sun will detail sometime this year its end-of-life plans for UltraSparc IV and IV+. It will also release a new version of its multicore Niagara chip, which is aimed at workloads such as Web servers.

Niagara has eight cores with four threads per core, but Niagara 2, which will be released sometime this summer, will remain eight cores but with eight threads per core, as well as more networking and cryptologic functions, said Tremblay.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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