Sun's future orbits around UltraSparc

Although it is already shipping its third-generation 64-bit UltraSparc processors, Sun Microsystems Inc. claims it still has a few surprises up its sleeve with the line of homemade chips.

With the opening here last Friday of its latest "Compute Ranch" center for microprocessor design, Sun again emphasized the importance that the UltraSparc chip family plays in the company's strategy. Sun may have to spend millions to push its chip technology forward, but the company claims this investment is one key to out-dueling competitors such as Dell Computer Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. In addition, executives at Sun say they have some new chip technology in the works that could make users happy and competitors concerned.

Unlike Dell and Compaq, which let Intel Corp. do the work on processor technology in exchange for licensing fees, Sun uses several design centers, such as the one launched Friday, to build processors that run across the company's entire hardware line and that have close ties to its Solaris operating system.

"Paying Microsoft (Corp.) and Intel licensing fees is not a profitable long-term business," said Ed Zander, president and chief operating officer at Sun, in an interview with the IDG News Service and InfoWorld.

Sun justifies the money its spends on the UltraSparc family by pointing to the chip's flexible design, which allows the company to sell versions of it in sub-US$1,000 workstations as well as multimillion-dollar 72-processor servers.

Sun impressed analysts with the recent release of 1.05GHz versions of the UltraSparc III, as the company was able to make a larger than expected leap in overall chip performance. Sun was able to push performance ahead by refining its compiler technology. It said the release of the Forte Compiler 7.0 in the first half of next year will provide yet another big boost.

"We pushed the UltraSparc III out too early with the launch of the Sun Blade 1000," said David Yen, vice president and general manager of the Sun Processor Products Group. "The compiler technology was not ready at the time."

The compiler advances will help Sun increase performance on its UltraSparc IV processors -- due out next year -- at a more aggressive clip than with the UltraSparc III, Yen said.

In addition, Sun is working on a technology designed to compete with the multi-chip module (MCM) introduced by IBM Corp. with its Power4 processors. The MCM caused a stir in the industry because it allowed IBM to push components close together and dramatically increase performance and lower electricity consumption.

"There is no doubt that IBM's multi-chip module is their strength," Yen said. "They have deep pockets and can do things that other people can't."

Still, Yen contends that the Power4 processors cannot yet match the scalability of the UltraSparc III design and that IBM will have to be quite creative to make the MCM cost-effective enough for lower-end servers.

"Their next priority is to reduce the cost of it, and I wish them good luck," Yen said.

Yen said Sun has a secret technology in its arsenal pointed directly at the MCM, but he would not disclose details of it.

Another innovation happening at Sun is standalone I/O chips. Sun is experimenting with different types of I/O chips and is trying to find a way to incorporate this knowledge into new processors. The technology promises to boost data transfer rates, and users could see it in the next generation of UltraSparcs, Yen said.

Sun is also targeting the low-voltage processor segment with the help of partner Texas Instruments Inc, which manufactures Sun's chips. Texas Instruments has had success in the mobile computing market, developing chips that work hard while using as little power and producing as little heat as possible. Hardware vendors want to transfer this technology to the server market so they can help users save on energy costs. They could also pack servers more closely together because of low heat production.

Sun might look to leverage this expertise in compact but powerful blade servers, Yen said.

Sun's Zander charged that companies that license their core technology, such as Dell, are making the hardware industry into a commodity business to the point where profits will become scarce. For this reason, Sun and IBM will continue to make their own chips, operating systems and applications, looking to sell users systems with tightly linked components instead of just assembling other companies' technology, Zander said. Zander expects longtime rival IBM to pull away from its Intel server business over the next few years and, like Sun, promote its own technological expertise.

"Dell ought to be in the category of a distributor, not a technology company," Zander said. "They are a delivery channel."

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