Sun Microsystems is expanding its open source program around its SPARC processors with the announcement Tuesday that it would provide the OpenSPARC T2 RTL (register transfer level) processor design to the open source community under the GPL license.
OpenSPARC T2 is based on the UltraSPARC T2 processor released last August. The new processor is an eight-core design capable of handling eight threads per core, while running at just two watts per core.
Sun first announced it would “open source” the specifics of the UltraSPARC T1, known by its codename of “Niagara,” in December 2005. UltraSPARC 1 was launched in March 2006 and the RTL code was made available at that point on OpenSPARC.net. Since then, the RTL has been downloaded 6,500 times.
The source of a microprocessor is not like the source of an application. While in theory it would be possible to take that code and build a chip, making a semiconductor is no trivial matter. For most people, it’s about understanding the inner workings of the chip and Sun’s efforts are to make it easier to develop for UltraSPARC.
“The intent is to build an ecosystem around the platform,” Fadi Azhari, director of marketing in the Sun Microelectronics Group told InternetNews.com. “UltraSPARC is fairly radical in processing technology. Chip multithreading requires a new paradigm and developer sets. What we did was we targeted this program so developers, academic institutions or companies can use it to understand the inner working of the chip to optimize tools and their operating environment.”
The payback for Sun with this program has been seeding the developer community. “The value here is just beyond the chip architecture. What people develop on a piece of silicon [are] applications, and multi-threaded apps are really taking off at the edge of the network. We’re seeing a lot of people moving to [UltraSPARC] because they can really optimize their apps for it,” said Azhari.
Sun is expanding its academic support with the release of the T2 RTL by adding five universities as what it calls “OpenSPARC Centers of Excellence.” The schools are the University of California, Santa Cruz, University of Texas, Austin, University of Michigan, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Carnegie Mellon University.
Each school has a minimum two-year commitment to perform design research and offer course work based on Sun’s chip multi-threading design. “Some will do just pure research, to create derivatives of the chip. Others will develop new tools that students can benefit from. In some cases, they will deliver coursework to educate students on the architecture,” said Azhari.
“Thanks to the T1 design and other tools available to us through the Illinois Center of Excellence for OpenSPARC, faculty and students are performing research on processor reliability and architecture that would be impossible under any other scenario,” said Josep Torrellas, professor of computer science at the University of Illinois in a statement. “For academics, this is an order of magnitude improvement in research tools. Computer architecture researchers everywhere should check it out.”