Sun's Rock rolls further towards release

The chip has been successfully run on Solaris 10

Sun Microsystems has taken another step in the development of its 16-core Rock microprocessor after successfully booting up its own Solaris 10 operating system on a computer with Rock installed.

“The system came up and didn’t burn the part [or] burn the board up,” says Jeff Thomas, senior vice president of engineering for Sun’s newly created microelectronics unit.

Running Solaris 10 on a Rock microprocessor means Sun remains on schedule to ship the high-end UltraSparc (for Scalable Processor Architecture) chip multithreading (CMT) processor in the second half of 2008. Rock is to be fabricated by Texas Instruments.

“Bringing up the OS is a very key component to us feeling confident about the execution of our roadmap,” says Fadi Azhari, director of marketing for Sun’s Sparc CMT technology.

Multithreading refers to a chip design in which multiple streams of computer instructions, or threads, can travel through a processor core simultaneously. Sun intends to make Rock a 16-core processor, but Thomas says the company isn’t ready yet to say how many threads will be able to run through each core.

The Rock is the third in a line of CMT processors from Sun, following the UltraSparc T1, codenamed Niagara, which Sun introduced in 2005, and the UltraSparc T2, or Niagara 2, coming out this year. UltraSparc T1 microprocessors power Sun’s T1000, T2000 and Sparc Enterprise systems.

The Niagara and Rock processors are “aimed at different sweet spots in the market”, says Jean Bozman, a server industry analyst at IDC. The Niagara line handles network traffic, such as with telephone carriers, and some smaller database jobs, but Rock is intended to handle even more work.

“With Rock, the idea is that this is going to be a datacentre machine. It’s going to run a wider variety of workloads,” according to Bozman.

Sun envisions Rock processors handling ERP, CRM and other large-scale computing functions, says Thomas.

Sun is one of several chip makers bringing multicore and multithreading processors to market to generate more processing power than can be achieved by making single-core processors run faster. The other multicore/multithreading offerings include quad-core chips from Intel and, later this year, AMD.

Azul Systems, using a different approach, markets “pools” of processing capacity with as many as 768 processor cores in one system. This is designed for transaction-heavy workloads such as those running Java software applications.

Sun recently created a separate unit to develop new microelectronics products for use in Sun products but also to potentially licence technology to other companies.

Thomas doesn’t rule out the possibility of at least some elements of Rock’s technology someday being licensed to others.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean we would do it,” he says. “But if there were an interesting deal proposed to us, we would think about it.”

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