DARPA work is shaping Sun's future

A desktop-size supercomputer, new types of computer memory systems, and easier-to-build microprocessors will someday be reality if research being conducted by Sun Microsystems' Sun Labs pans out, according to the head of the company's applied research division.

Though a desktop-size supercomputer may be little more than a dream at this point, Sun is working on some new technologies that could help bring that project to fruition, thanks in part to a US$50 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that the company was awarded last month, Sun Labs Director Jim Mitchell said in an interview.

Sun was one of three companies given three-year contracts to build a prototype high-end computer system for a variety of DARPA-specified areas of use, including weather prediction, biotechnology and cryptanalysis.

IBM and Cray were also selected to build prototypes. In three years, DARPA will select one of the three companies to actually build the computer system now in the prototype stage. But whether or not Sun receives the next contract, the research being done by its lab teams will have an impact on Sun's product lines, particularly in the areas of system packaging, heat management, power management, and asynchronous design, Mitchell said.

Of the three, heat management is by far the toughest problem, Mitchell said. "The big surprise to me about the high-performance stuff is you spend all your time worrying about heat."

Some of the DARPA work on software development is making its way into Sun's compilers, run-time libraries and development tools, Mitchell said, and at next month's IEEE Custom Integrated Circuits Conference in San Jose, California, Sun will unveil new research into how asynchronous design principles can be applied to a computer's memory system to improve performance and reduce the cost of computing.

Mitchell declined to comment on specifics of the announcement, but Sun Lab engineer Ivan Sutherland, who leads Sun's asynchronous design project, is scheduled as one of the presenters of a talk on "Proximity Design" at the conference.

Asynchronous design is an approach to building computer processors that allows them to be built and run in a more modular way. In microprocessor designs, for example, it allows engineers to build different components of the microprocessor -- the floating point unit or an arithmetic logic unit, for example -- in modular fashion.

This kind of design lets processors perform more efficiently than traditional, clock-based, microprocessors and also allows Sun engineers to reuse processor components in future designs, something that is rarely done in today's microprocessors, Mitchell said. "When you do asynchronous logic, it tends to use half to a third as much power as a clock system," he said.

Some of Sun Lab's work on asynchronous design has been implemented in the UltraSparc IIIi processors that power the Sun Fire V210 and V240 servers. The technique will be used to build at least one of the upcoming Ultrasparc IV chips, Mitchell said, but he estimated that it will be "two or three generations" before the technology becomes common in all of Sun's microprocessors. "There's still a lot more research to do."

A working computer based on the work being done under the DARPA contract would still be at least six years out, and would depend on Sun being selected over Cray and IBM to proceed to the next phase of the contract, Mitchell said.

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