Sun goes open route to broaden appeal of new chip

Sun is hoping to get its UltraSparc T1 chip noticed by more than just its installed Sparc user base via its OpenSparc program.

Sun Microsystems is hoping to get its UltraSparc T1 chip, formerly codenamed Niagara, noticed by more than just its installed Sparc user base via a new program dubbed OpenSparc. The ultimate aim is to have third parties improve on the processor's design and produce their own UltraSparc T1-based chips, according to Sun executives.

Scott McNealy, Sun's chairman and chief executive officer, Tuesday took the wraps off the OpenSparc project, a Sun program to publish specifications for the UltraSparc T1 chip. The move not only builds on Sun's commitment to open up its products but will hopefully generate more revenue for the company by creating more markets for the multicore, multithreaded 64-bit chip and related software and services, he said.

McNealy made the announcement in New York where Sun launched the first UltraSparc T1-based servers, the Sun Fire T1000 and T2000. "This is going to bend a lot of brains," he said. "It's all about building community."

Sun positioned Tuesday's OpenSparc announcement as "open sourcing UltraSparc T1," referring to the chip's design specifications as "hardware source code." On its Web site, Sun defines open sourcing hardware as "providing free and open tools that are essential components to developing a new chip."

Details on the OpenSparc project will be forthcoming later, according to McNealy. "We want to get the right model in terms of governance and implementation," he said.

The OpenSparc project is set to go live in the first quarter of 2006, probably in March, according to information on Sun's Web site. The company initially intends to publish specifications for the UltraSparc T1 design point which are likely to include the source of the design expressed in the Verilog verification suite and simulation models, the UltraSparc Architecture 2005 ISA or instruction set architecture and a port to Sun's Solaris operating system. Sun expects to release the specifications under an open-source license approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI), according to McNealy.

McNealy Tuesday described his dream scenario for the OpenSparc project. Five to ten different companies would form and each work on improving the UltraSparc T1 specifications and perhaps build their own implementations of the Sun chips, he said. "Their exit strategy would be to be acquired by Sun," McNealy added. This model has worked successfully for Sun in the past, McNealy noted, pointing to the company's acquisition of Afara Websystems in July 2002. Afara developed Sparc-based microprocessor technology which post-purchase Sun then used in the development of the UltraSparc T1 chip.

McNealy also hopes software developers will use the UltraSparc T1 specifications to create applications more tightly bound to the hardware and its multithreading capabilities. Both Sun executives and third-party software vendors maintained during the UltraSparc T1 server launch that most applications can run optimally without modification on systems powered by the Sun chip. However, some analysts have expressed concerns over how much work third-party application developers may have to do to make their software run fully optimized on the new Sun servers.

Sun is already actively working with Linux distribution vendor Red Hat to port Linux to servers based on UltraSparc T1, according to McNealy.

Sun has been hard at work opening up its own core software for some time. The company released an open-source version of its Solaris operating system, OpenSolaris, in June. Last week, Sun announced free distribution of its middleware, management and Java development tools as way to attract developers to try out the software.

On the hardware front, Sun established Sparc International back in 1989 to promote the Sparc architecture and licensed its chip design to a number of vendors including Fujitsu Ltd. Sun and the Japanese company announced plans last year to develop a new range of Sparc-based systems called the Advanced Product Line (APL).

Currently, Sun is developing an OpenSparc community Web site at http://www.opensparc.net.

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