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8/2/2007
09:51 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Sun's Niagara 2 Processor Is Multicore Computing On Steroids

Think you've heard the latest word on multicore computing via the new crop of quad-core processors from Intel and AMD? That stuff is nice, but if you want the heaviest-duty multicore going, you gotta call Sun Microsystems, which is on the verge of unveiling its eight-core, 64-thread Niagara 2 processor.

Think you've heard the latest word on multicore computing via the new crop of quad-core processors from Intel and AMD? That stuff is nice, but if you want the heaviest-duty multicore going, you gotta call Sun Microsystems, which is on the verge of unveiling its eight-core, 64-thread Niagara 2 processor.Possibly you haven't heard too much about the chip, which is officially called the UltraSparc T2, because Sun doesn't sell processors to OEMs and retail users, the way Intel and AMD do.

Also, Sun has a decidedly abstruse way of marketing its chips. Rather then emphasizing that Niagara 2 is equipped with eight processors, each of which handle eight threads, Sun is instead positioning the device as the centerpiece of its "Throughput Computing" effort. That's a catch phrase only a company of Sun's ilk--cool in a rather unhip way--could love.

What does it mean? Umm, this:

Throughput Computing is the underlying strategy of Sun's new family of UltraSparc processors designed to significantly increase real-world application performance while helping to cut the cost and complexity of network computing. These processors maximize throughput [via] chip multithreading. CMT integrates the power of symmetric multiprocessing onto a single chip, allowing a single processor to execute several software threads simultaneously.

TMI; here's where this is really headed. As I said earlier, Sun doesn't sell processors to outside OEMs and consumers, so its objective in hyping Niagara isn't to build market share for the chips themselves. It's to build mindshare for its high-end servers. And Sun sure sells a lot of servers. The company just had a bang-up fourth quarter, where it toted up profits of $329 million largely on the strength of its ranking and the industry's number-four server vendor, after IBM, HP, and Dell.




Silicon of Sun's Niagara 2, expected to be announced the week of August 6. (Click picture to enlarge.)

With most server vendors, the sad and often unacknowledged part of the story is that moving "iron" is not all that different from selling cars. Namely, for every high-end item they sell and make a hefty profit on, they ship hundreds of commodity boxes which serve mainly to keep the factories open.

Sun's coolest servers (almost literally; they're called the CoolThreads servers) are powered by the Niagara 1, aka UltraSparc T1, which was released in November 2005. Sun's commodity servers use AMD's Opteron, which currently a dual-core chip, but will soon have four cores when Barcelona is released in August.

Since Sun doesn't break out its server sales by product family, I can't tell you their high/low sales split, but here's my guess: When Sun's stock was in the crapper--it fell from a high of $64 in 2000 to a low of $4 in 2004--the company pulled out of its swan-dive by essentially sidelining its proprietary processor strategy, built around UltraSparc, and moving into commodity Opteron boxes in a big way. (It also kicked the colorful Scott McNealy upstairs and replaced him with the aforementioned uber-cool and now highly successful Mr. Schwartz, but that's another story.)

The Opteron strategy paid off in a big way, but I suspect that Sun longed to revive the high-end server business. Interestingly, it seems to have done just that. As part of its recent earnings report, Sun said that sales of its highest-end servers were up by 225 percent, compared to a 39-percent growth rate for the rest of its models.

The difference now, as compared to the waning years of the twentieth century, is that Sun is much more reticent about talking up its chips as chips. Instead, it's trumpeting this not-as-accessible-as-they-think-it-is "Throughput Computing" stuff.



Niagara 2 has lots of features aimed at the high end, including cryptographic capabilites. (Click picture to enlarge.)

Still, this Niagara 2 device is a killer piece of silicon, delivering double the throughput of its predecessor. Here's a quick chip scorecard:

  • 8 Sparc cores;
  • 4-MB L2 cache;
  • Integrated floating-point units into each core pipeline
  • Double the performance per watt of the predecessor Niagara 1;
  • Order of magnitude (10 times, for you non-math types) improvement in floating-point performance;
  • Two on-chip 10G Ethernet ports:
  • Eight cryptographic units, to support running both Ethernet ports encrypted

I particularly like the cryptography stuff. I guess it means, if you're a Sun stockholder, you can feel confident that the NSA is reading your email on a Niagara 2 server.

It's interesting to note that, while Intel and AMD are no slouches at microprocessor architectures (both the former's Core and the latter's new 10h are worthy implementations), it's often Sun and IBM which take bigger gambles. That's because the latter two behemoths less concerned with desktops, and so are free to push the limit on cores slightly beyond the industry's comfort zone. They're also able to focus on high-speed inter-processor communication issues--Niagara two has an eight-by-nine crossbar switch connecting every core to an L2 cache bank--as well as other gating factors for high-end server performance.

I'm not exactly sure how Niagara 2, Barcelona and Intel's Core 2 Extreme quad cores (or their upcoming 45-nm Penryn processors) stack up benchmark-wise, but I'm guessing it's quite a competition. Also in the mix is the chip which IBM was proclaiming last May as the fastest in the world. That would be Big Blue's top of the line processor the dual-core, 4-GHz Power 6.



Crossbar switches make for fast data exchange between the eight cores in Niagara and the L2 cache. (Click picture to enlarge.)

I should point out that the number of cores isn't the most important metric, not only because IBM has nothing to apologize for-it was first with dual core-but because the Power architecture is configured as a module, rather than a chip. IBM has previously fielded quad-core Power5 modules, so presumably could push Power 6 in this direction. Unlike in desktops, modules aren't a big deal in servers, where there's more room.

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