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8/7/2007
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Sun UltraSparc T2 Chip Touted For Virtualization Servers

Though it will be offered in commodity servers and is priced competitively, Sun execs deny the Niagara will compete with Xeon or Opteron.

Sun Microsystems on Tuesday is expected to introduce its eight-core, 64-thread UltraSparc T2 processor, flaunting its performance boost over the previous generation and the chip's capabilities for supporting virtualization.

Code named Niagara 2, the server processor offers double the performance per watt of the first generation UltraSparc T1, and 10 times the floating-point performance, according to Sun. Other features include 4-Mbytes L2 cache, two on-chip 10-Gbyte Ethernet ports, and integrated floating-point units into each core pipeline.

The UltraSparc T2, in conjunction with Sun's Solaris operating system, is being touted as having the most advanced virtualization technology, providing the ability to run up to 64 applications simultaneously on a single processor. "The combination of Solaris and UltraSparc is a very powerful virtualization platform," said Fadi Azhari, director of marketing for Sun Microelectronics, a division of Sun. "We believe it's unequaled in the industry."

Virtualization is a hot topic within IT departments looking for consolidation within their data centers by running more applications within a single computer server. Besides its virtualization capabilities, UltraSparc T2 also offers double the throughput of its predecessor, making it an even better candidate for network attached storage devices.

Sun sees T2 in hardware beyond servers, such as routers, switches, telecommunications infrastructure, medical imaging, and industrial printing, Azhari said. The company, however, has kept pricing at a level to compete with x86 offerings from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. Pricing for the latest UltraSparc starts at less than $1,000.

Nevertheless, Azhari was careful not to position T2 as the favored chip over Intel and AMD products, which Sun also sells in its commodity servers. "We're building our business around offering choice to our customers," he said. Sun would recommend to customers the hardware that best fits their needs.

Nevertheless, Sun is clearly hoping to sell more of the high-end UltraSparc servers, which carry higher profit margins then x86 machines. Sun doesn't break down its sales by server products, but in the fourth fiscal quarter ended June 30, sales of Sun's highest-end servers were up 225%, compared with a 39% growth rate for the rest of its models. Sun reported a net income of $329 million for the quarter, as server sales rose 2.3% to $1.85 billion. Much of the profit, however, came from cost cutting.

Depending on the configuration, power consumption for the UltraSparc T2 ranges from 60 watts to 123 watts. Nominal power usage is 95 watts, Azhari said. For security, the T2 has eight crypto-graphics units to support running both Ethernet ports encrypted.

As it did with UltraSparc T1, Sun plans to offer open-source licensing for T2 technology. The company has launched an early access program for a select number of partners to the chip description, known as registered transfer logic, or RTL. That information will be made generally available in the months ahead, Azhari said. In addition, Sun also plans to eventually release the hardware architecture specification and the programmer reference manual. The technology, which would be available under version 2 of the GNU General Public License (GPLv2), makes it possible to develop chip derivatives.

Competition for UltraSparc T2 is sure to heat up over the coming months as AMD releases its first quad-core Opteron server chip, code named Barcelona. Intel currently has Core 2 Extreme quad cores, and plans to ship this year Penryn, a quad-core processor built using a 45-nanometer manufacturing process that's expected to boost power-performance ratios. IBM also makes the dual-core 4-GHz Power 6 chip.

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