Sun isn't getting radical just yet, but it is prepping the first of its multicore low-end processors for delivery in 2004.
As expected, the Gemini processor will combine two UltraSPARC II cores on a single piece of silicon. The chip is due sometime next year, coming in at about 1.2GHz and consuming but 32 Watts of power at maximum load. This product was built by Sun staffers but future multicore designs will come from work originally done by Afara WebSystems - a small company Sun acquired last year.
The Gemini processor sits at the heart of Sun's throughput computing campaign. Sun is looking to cram numerous processor cores on a single chip in the hopes that it can reduce some of the disconnect between ever-increasing processor speeds and sluggish memory. Surround these multicore chips with tons of memory, and the processor won't be waiting for data for long periods of time. At least one core will be busy at all times.
Sun's multicore strategy centers around multi-threaded software. Sun has been selling SMPs for some time now, and it's looking for processors such as Gemini to create an SMP on a chip. Software such as Solaris and Java that can split threads across an SMP should behave in a similar fashion on the multicore chips.
Gemini is targeted at the one to four processor server space and thin, blade-type systems in particular. The chip's low power consumption qualities should make it ideal for large web and app server farms.
Sun says Gemini will perform about 3 times better than current 1.0GHz UltraSPARC IIIi chips. The successor to Gemini - Niagara - will arrive in 2005 with a 15X performance boost over current chips.
The Niagara product, what Sun calls a "radical" design, will have 8 processor cores per chip and each core will support 4 software threads. Niagara will truly be a milticore chip on Viagra.
Thus far, Sun is going it alone with the "radical" multicore approach. IBM, of course, already has a dual-core Power4 chip, and HP and Sun both have dual-core RISC chips prepped as well. Intel will be coming along here too with Montecito. None of these designs, however, really compares to either Gemini or Niagara.
IBM and HP are experimenting with these types of low power, simplified chips but haven't announced anything for mass production. Sun believes this is the right strategy to take given the types of software that are gaining acceptance. Sun says that the Web services craze along with Java and billions of mobile devices will call for processors that can divvy up myriad lightweight transactions as opposed to a single, powerful chip than can perform one function well.
There is no real work that needs to be done to software in order to take advantage of the multicore chips. If it runs well on an SMP, it should do well on Niagara. In addition, the new chips are pin compatible with Sun's current UltraSPARC IIIi line. So, little customer adjustment is required to give the suckers a shot.
Sun will continue to ship its main UltraSPARC line for years to come. The UltraSPARC IV arrives early next year and UltraSPARC V comes in 2006.
All that said, Sun is providing its customers with a pretty clear path for the road ahead. The old, faithful chips are there along with a couple of surprises.
Sun's UltraSPARC chips have been overshadowed by IBM's Power line over the last year and half or so, and the company needs something special to get it back in the analysts' good graces. Time will tell if the "radical" approach is what the doctor ordered. ®