Dual-core processors are fast becoming the next big wave in computing. AMD more than got Intel’s attention when AMD’s dual-core Opteron started making big inroads in Intel’s server business.
Intel has since committed to moving its whole line of desktop and server processors to dual and multi-core. IBM is quick to remind rivals that it was shipping dual-core versions of its Power processor long before either company.
Enter Sun Microsystems. The systems maker unveiled its eight-core Niagara processor today. It also officially dropped the name Niagara, the internal name for the processor, and rechristened it UltraSparc T1 with CoolThreads.
Sun is sprinting with the dual-core concept, which doubles the number of cores or “brains” on a processor, speeding performance and saving both space and energy.
Each of the UltraSparc T1 cores has four threads for a total of 32. Each thread can perform different tasks in parallel, which speeds processing for applications written to take advantage of it. UltraSparc T1 also supports Sun’s Solaris 10 operating system.
“If Niagara delivers what Sun has said it will, I think it could be a real game changer for that class of system and appeal to a broad set of buyers who wouldn’t normally consider Sun for their infrastructure,” Nathan Brookwood, analyst with Inight64, told internetnews.com. “Sun is claiming performance comparable to several Intel Xeon or AMD Opteron machines at far less power consumption.”
Sun says the UltraSparc T1 processor will use 70 watts of power –- less than half that of Intel’s Xeon and IBM’s Power processor. Sun Fire servers based on the new processor are set to ship later this year.
Brookwood said companies whose data centers are close to maxing out power consumption or tight on physical space are desperate for alternative solutions because the problem is likely to only get worse. “If you’re asking ‘How do I get more done with the same amount of electrical power?’ this is one of the few solutions out there. And I think there are plenty of companies in this bind that will see this as manna from heaven.”
Sun is touting the energy savings and environmental benefits of UltraSparc T1 by calling it “the world’s first eco-responsible processor.” Sun claims that if every Web server in the world were replaced with half the number of Sun Fire Servers, it would add up to a $14 billion savings in energy costs annually.
But as rumors of Sun’s announcement swirled, some of its competitors were quick to issue statements critical of Sun’s claims.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that Sun is betting its business on Niagara, but as they attempt to buy time and momentum with an early product release, a number of challenges remain,” said Terry Brennan, pSeries Launch Manager for IBM, in a statement sent to internetnews.com. “Sun is pushing chip multi threading (CMT), which IBM’s Power chips have had for some time. It’s unclear why a customer would go with Sun’s new processor platform when IBM has proven CMT technology and industry-standard benchmarks that continue to demonstrate the superior performance and speed of POWER.”
Hewlett-Packard has a Web site titled The Real Story about Sun’s Niagara. Among its critiques is that individual cores on Niagara have much slower single threaded performance compared to Intel’s Xeon and Itanium, AMD’s Operton or even Sun’s current UltraSparc processors.
HP also questioned how much work it would take to optimize software for the new architecture. IBM and HP also claim that UltraSparc T1 doesn’t support Linux.
But Fadi Azhari, director of outbound marketing at Sun, told internetnews.com the Solaris operating system has supported threaded applications for years, so there’s no extra work needed to move Solaris 10 applications onto the UltraSparc T1 architecture. “It’s true, this is not for Linux,” said Azhari. “Solaris is the OS for Sparc and the optimized stack we’ve delivered to the market. Linux is more an option for us in the x86, 64-bit space.”
Azhari said UltraSparc T1 servers will be particularly well-suited to fast-growing, Web-based tiers of applications. “Today, especially with the Web apps, there is a lot of waiting for data to come into the CPU. CoolThreads allows multiple threads of computing into the CPU so there is maximum throughput on the same amount of real estate. It’s like having multiple lanes in the supermarket instead of everyone having to wait in one line for one register.”
Analyst Brookwood said he generally steers clients away from proprietary architectures unless there is sufficient incentive to use them. “But here the performance per watt is dramatically better than the industry standard and that to me is an adequate motivation to consider Sun. The cores themselves may not be very elegant, but what’s relevant here is whether they’ll do the job companies need them to do. From what I’ve seen Sun plans to deliver that.”