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Sun Flares with New UltraSparc

Sun Microsystems is making good on its pledge to boost the performance of its Sun Fire Unix servers, offering versions of those machines with the company's new UltraSPARC IV+ processors.

The new Sun Fire V490, V890, E2900, E4900 and E6900 servers are powered by 1.5 GHz UltraSPARC IV+ processors, which feature twice the performance of the UltraSparv IV chip, said Fadi Azhari, product manager for Sun's Scalable Systems Group.

Azhari said customers who already own v490 and V890 systems may simply replace existing UltraSparc chips with the UltraSparc IV+ because the new chip has the same footprint, despite the power boost.

In what Sun calls an "on the fly" upgrade, customers can upgrade their E2900, E4900 and E6900 machines by swapping existing motherboards in the servers with motherboards fitted with the UltraSparc IV+, thanks to patented uniboard technology.

The idea is that customers can give their data centers a performance boost merely by changing some chips, or popping out and replacing the motherboard.

Azhari said the genesis of the UltraSparc IV+ performance boost is that the memory and data now run closer to the processor than they did in previous UltraSparc chips.

He attributed the new technology to a processor shrink to 90 nanometers, which allows engineers to add more transistors. This also yields power consumption for the same amount of logic.

"With the shrink, we were able to allow for more space on the transistors and to add a level-2 cache on board," Azhari said. "We've also increased the size of level-3 cache to 32 megabytes, basically allowing better proximity of cache and data to the processor unit. That allows you to minimize your memory latency."

The new architecture also offers binary compatibility across multiple generations of SPARC-Solaris systems. This lets customers run their software with no recoding or recompiling.

Software vendors such as Oracle, SAS, SAP, BEA have configured their applications to work with the new Sun Fire servers, which are immediately available.

Azhari called the improvement part of Sun's current cycle of innovation. The speed boost comes as Sun is trying stop the slight bleed of Unix server market share. Sun is still the leader, but IBM has been gaining on its rival systems vendor for several quarters, thanks to systems based on its Power architecture.

Overall, Sun's revenues declined 5.3 percent from the second quarter of 2004 even though the company remained the top seller in terms of units shipped.

Sun has been going through several strategic shifts, opening up Solaris and trying to lure customers with big discounts on its products, among other strategic plays.

The Santa Clara, Calif., company last week held its quarterly news launch in New York, unleashing its Galaxy line of 64-bit dual-core servers, to the praise of analysts.