Sun: Too Little but is it Also Too Late?
Sun Microsystems has been in tight spots before but never like this. Its large SPARC based servers were once touted as engines powering a digital new age, an internet based economy. This notion was captured in its marketing slogan about Sun “putting the dot in dot com”. Bruised and battered by the current economic uncertainty and hurt by a product line that grows increasingly stale by the day, some have cruelly suggested Sun’s new slogan should be “putting the bank in bankruptcy”.
While its current situation is not anywhere near that dire, it is obvious that the substantial MPU development effort Sun engages in is not delivering the goods as it should. The company stumbled badly with the UltraSPARC-III (US-III), shelving the initial 0.25 mm version altogether. Yet it still has to rely this microarchitecture for years to come. The next major refresh, the UltraSPARC-IV, is basically a 0.13 mm shrink of the 0.18 mm US-III core. Serious relief won’t come until 2005 in the form of the UltraSPARC-V, a completely new design that reportedly incorporates dynamic scheduling like the Fujitsu SPARC64 V. But the track record of MPU design teams tackling out-of-order execution for the first time suggests the 2005 delivery time scale should be considered a best case scenario. If the rumor that US-V also incorporates SMT is true then a 2005 delivery is even more unlikely.
Over the next year Sun will likely introduce products based on the US-IV and the US-IIIi. Like the US-IV, the US-IIIi is based on a 0.13 m m implementation of the US-III CPU core. The two processors are differentiated primarily by the logic that surrounds the CPU core, which in turn is shaped by the intended role. The US-IIIi will replace the hopelessly outdated US-IIi in Sun’s workstation line and also be used in 1 to 4 CPU entry level servers. The US-IIIi includes a 1.0 MB on-chip L2 cache, an integrated 128 bit wide DDR memory interface and controller, and SMP system bus interface. The big machine oriented US-IV will likely include a large L2 cache and higher bandwidth system and memory interfaces than the US-IIIi. A more expensive, higher I/O count package will likely be used for the faster clocked US-IV to accommodate wider data paths, a greater number of power and ground connections, and higher heat dissipation. There are reports that the US-IV is a two way CMP device like the POWER4. If true then it would represent a major change for Sun which has traditionally emphasized manufacturability and low cost. The US-III core is relatively large (nearly twice as big as EV68 in 0.18 mm) so a dual core US-IV would be quite substantial even in 0.13 mm.
The immediate future aside, Sun is faced with a long term MPU credibility problem. The admission by computer giants like HP and Compaq that they couldn’t justify or sustain the increasingly expensive effort of designing house brand processors and building systems around them increases the pressure on Sun management to justify further investment in SPARC. The more SPARC performance lags behind openly available merchant processor families like x86, x86-64, and IA64, the greater this pressure becomes. The more that revenue from SPARC-based hardware falls the greater this pressure becomes. Sun’s recent move to develop a Linux system product line based on Intel x86 processors is a sure sign that its once highly successful strategy of “putting all its wood behind one arrow” is showing the first signs of giving way to a more pragmatic and realistic approach.
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