Sun Reveals UltraSPARC IV

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Sun Microsystems Monday took the wraps off its long awaited UltraSPARC IV processor (code-named Jaguar – no relationship to Apple computer’s OS).

The fourth-generation chip is made up off two UltraSPARC-III cores (code-named Cheetah) and includes on-chip tags for 8 MBs of off-chip 2-way set-associative Level 2 cache per core. Company execs with the Santa Clara, Calif.-based concern say the new chip has the potential to double the throughput of Sun’s existing high-end and mid-range systems when it hits the market in the first half of 2004.

The chips are expected to go head-to-head with IBM’s Power series of chips as well as Intel’s Itanium family and Hewlett-Packard’s PA-RISC processors. Sun is showing off its latest RISC chip at the 16th annual Microprocessor Forum here.

“We’re excited to see Sun taking aggressive steps to reinvent and redefine server processor performance and challenge the industry with this daring move,” In-Stat/MDR senior analyst Kevin Krewell said. “Sun is once again taking up the role of innovator and is showing it will not allow Intel’s Itanium juggernaut to roll over it.”

One advantage Sun says it has is that each thread will be to make use of the available L2 bandwidth. Other shared interfaces on the UltraSPARC IV processor include an on-chip memory controller supporting up to 16 GBs of DRAM, and a system interface unit providing access to the Sun Fireplane interconnect fabric.

The new chips are part of Sun’s “Throughput Computing” strategy, which the company acquired from Afara Websystems last year. At the heart of this new strategy is Chip Multithreading (CMT), a design concept that allows the processor to execute tens of threads simultaneously. The first generation of Throughput, such as the UltraSPARC IV family of processors, will enhance current UltraSPARC III system throughput, initially by up to 2 times, and later by up to 3 to 4 times the current levels. In the future, Sun says it will be rolling out a more radical CMT design, which will first appear in Sun’s Blade platform in 2006, that will increase the throughput of today’s UltraSPARC IIIi systems by up to 15 times.

As it has for the past 15 years, Sun turned to Texas Instruments to produce the chip. Built using current 130-nanometer (nm) process technology, the UltraSPARC IV is expected to run at initial speeds of 1.2 GHz. As an added bonus, Sun says the chips are pin-compatible with its UltraSPARC III brethren and do not need a board replacement for upgrading existing systems. A 90nm UltraSPARC IV is expected to debut sometime between 2005 and 2006. Dallas-based TI says it should be able to produce 45nm chips as early as 2008.

TI says it has an advantage over IBM’s and Intel’s fabs in that its CMOS logic relies on a 35nm gate length and highly effective gate dielectric. Other improvements in both the NMOS and PMOS transistors include strain induced on the transistor channel to increase electron mobility, nickel silicide to lower gate resistance and ultra-shallow source/drain junctions.

Since their relationship began in 1988, Sun and TI have designed and built six generations of SPARC processors and several industry firsts, including the first 64-bit microprocessor produced using 130nm.

“This symbiotic relationship has allowed both companies to focus their energy on what they do best,” said Sun executive vice president Dr. David Yen. For TI, it is developing and manufacturing state-of-the-art process technology and for Sun, it is designing and marketing cutting-edge processors.”

For example, Yen says TI is able to apply its learnings in 64-bit manufacturing to the development of high-speed I/O ASICs, digital signal processors (DSPs) and DSP-based product lines. All the while, Sun says it can focus on design without having to build and maintain silicon wafer fabrication facilities.

Sun’s two other Throughput Computing chips include the dual-core Gemini chip, which is sampling now at 1GHz and 1.2GHz and the eight-core Niagara processor earmarked for entry and midrange servers using 90nm and due out as early as 2005.

The company is hoping the Throughput Computing initiative will ignite more interest in its products in the midst of some uncertain times.

Earlier this month, Sun reported it would have to write down a charge for more than $1 billion for its fiscal fourth quarter. The alert to investors prompted a warning from analyst firm Merrill Lynch to ‘cut and focus’ or be acquired.

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