Sun's Rock Processor on Track for This Year, Exec Says

After a year's delay, Sun Microsystems' 16-core "Rock" server chip is on track for delivery in the fall, the head of Sun's systems business said Monday.

The processor will have a new, multi-threaded design and double the core count from Sun's fastest server processor today, the UltraSparc T2, which has eight cores. It will be targeted at enterprise servers that process data-intensive applications like databases.

"The processor is in various stages of debug. We're getting close [to release]," said John Fowler, executive vice president of systems at Sun, in an interview.

Fowler didn't provide an exact ship date but said the chip will be in servers by the Fall, suggesting a September to November timeframe. Rock was originally due for release in 2008, but Sun revealed last year that it had delayed the release until the second half of 2009.

The first 16-core chips will go into midrange servers, Fowler said. Sun currently offers a four-socket mid-range server called the Sparc Enterprise T5440, which uses the UltraSparc T2 processor, and Rock will debut in a system "above" the T5440, Fowler said.

"They are not going to be necessarily someone's first purchase but they'll fit nicely into the midrange where a lot of enterprise-level databases and fairly significant amounts of processing will live," he said.

Sun has disclosed in the past that the Rock's processor cores will operate at 2.1GHz.

Increasing the number of cores on a processor was the next logical step for Sun, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. However, the company will be releasing the chip during a recession, at a time when server spending has slowed, he noted.

"By the time Rock appears, Sun enterprise customers are going to be hungry for something new. Whether they will be willing to make that investment in anyone's guess," King said.

The new chip may build on the power efficiency and performance improvements Sun delivered in its earlier Niagara processors, King said.

With the new architecture, there could be some programming challenges that Sun may have to keep a close tab on, King said. The company will have to make it easier for software developers to port older applications to Rock to take full advantage of the sixteen cores for improved application performance, King said.

Sun, for its part, is trying to optimize software to take advantage of its multicore and multithreaded processors. For example, Sun is preparing its MySQL open-source database software to perform faster by breaking up instances of the application over multiple cores, Fowler said.

"We're working on MySQL to make it scale to higher and higher thread and core counts," Fowler said.

Some recent studies have raised questions about whether a high number of cores will provide a jump in software performance. The Sandia National Laboratories, for example, noticed workload processing improve from two to eight cores, but actually decline as the number of cores expanded beyond that.

The reality is a little more complicated than that, Fowler said.

"You have got to be careful of those very broad-based statements because all software is very different, and even a workload on a database can be different.," he said. Some workloads perform "really well" on a higher number of cores, while others are better suited to four or eight cores, he said.

Sun, along with other chip makers, is continuously adding cores to chips for more processing power. Intel and Advanced Micro Devices offer quad-core chips for servers, and Intel is due to come out with an eight-core server chip codenamed Nehalem-EX later this year. Sun's chips also compete with IBM's Power6 processors and Intel's Itanium chips.

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