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Sun CTO: 'Microprocessors Are About to Die'

SAN FRANCISCO –- Clearly it's more of a semantic argument than really the death of chips. Right?

Sun's CTO, Greg Papadopoulos, raised more than a few eyebrows when he declared the imminent demise of the microprocessor at a technology briefing for press and analysts here this week.

As Papadopoulos sees it, we are on the cusp of another technology turning point similar to the 1980s when the microprocessor, essentially a computer-on-chip, made discreet mainframe processors obsolete. Now he says we're going to see the "microsystem," essentially a server-on-a-chip, obsolete the microprocessor.

He said the microprocessor, as a motherboard full of supporting chip sets and PCI slots with sockets for microprocessors, will give way to server-on-a-chip systems, such as Sun's forthcoming UltraSparc T1 Processor with CoolThreads announced this week.

By this definition Papadopoulos credits AMD's Opteron in his blog as being a microsystem, as well.

"Our good friends at AMD are actively killing the microprocessor with Opteron," he wrote. "From our vantage, they are still leaving a lot of potential performance on the table (and power efficiency as well) by not reducing core complexity and adding aggressive multithreading. That being said, Opteron is seriously spanking Xeon with the lower memory latency benefit of on-chip DRAM controllers."

Sun isn't expected to ship its Sun Fire servers based on the eight-core, 32-thread T1 processor until till the end of this year at the earliest. At the San Francisco event Papadopoulos called the UltraSparc T1 "the first credible server-on-a-chip."

Each of the processor's eight cores has four threads, and the combined 32 threads are designed to handle up to 32 tasks in parallel.

Other chipmakers such as Intel, AMD and IBM, take advantage of such multithreading with their dual-core offerings for software that's designed to take advantage of it. But Sun is claiming a mammoth 300 percent in performance for its 32-thread system or about 10 times what the other offer.

Servers based on the UltraSparc T1 will run Sun's Solaris operating system, which is designed for multithreaded applications.

"The fundamental issue is that we started from scratch to do multithreading. It's harder to start [with a different architecture] and bolt on threading capability," said Marc Tremblay, vice president and chief architect of Sun's scalable systems group.

But there are other ways to speed performance and Sun has yet to produce independent benchmarks to prove its performance claims for UltraSparc T1.

Papadopoulos said UltraSparc T1 will "not be a floating point wonder." Floating point helps math-intensive applications such as computer-aided-design.

He said he fully expects competitors to slam the UltraSparc T1's performance in those types of applications after the first Sun Fire servers are released. Sun also sells a line of AMD Opteron-based servers better suited to more floating-point-dependent applications he said.

Sun was among the high-flying companies to enjoy great success during the dot-com boom. Its servers powered many of the Internet industry's success stories. Sun even launched a campaign that proclaimed, "We're the dot in .com".

And while the boom became a bust, Sun hopes in this second act that businesses will flock to its UltraSparc T1 servers designed to give Web tier applications a serious performance boost. An example would be companies looking to add a Web server to their data center.

"You look at what Goggle does, search and Web access is a perfect match for these servers," said Tremblay.