The Looming Battle in 64 Bit Land

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SPARC: Performance isn’t Everything

Like PA-RISC, Sun Microsystem’s SPARC design was one of the earliest commercially available RISC processors. And like PA-RISC, SPARC didn’t turn 64 (bit) until middle age. The first 64 bit SPARC was the 0.5 um UltraSPARC. The UltraSPARC core design was subsequently ported to a 0.29 um process and renamed the UltraSPARC-II (US-II). Currently Sun is putting on a brave face selling heavily discounted US-II systems running as fast as 450 MHz while it awaits its new UltraSPARC-III core. And it couldn’t come too soon. The 450 MHz US-II is in the embarrassing position of being both outclassed by over 2:1 on SPECint95 by high-end x86 processors and overtaken on SPECfp95 too.

However, SPARC hasn’t been close to the front of the RISC performance race in more than ten years and this fact hasn’t seriously hindered the commercial success of Sun in either the technical workstation or server market. Sun developed an early software lead over other RISC processor families on the strength of the innovative and fast SPARCstation 1 and 2 systems in the late 1980’s. On the strength of its gigantic software base, large scale multiprocessor servers, and a consistent product strategy revolving around Unix on SPARC, Sun Microsystems has retained a surprisingly loyal following in the IS departments of Fortune 500 companies despite SPARC’s glaring performance shortcomings.

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