In his recent blog titled "Recipe for Winning Chip Battles," Sun's Jonathan Schwartz makes a case for his company's ascendency based on having a high volume operating system (Solaris, with reportedly more than 3.2 million downloads since it went open source, mostly on non-Sun hardware) and what he calls the fastest chip on earth, the soon to be released, power sipping UltraSPARC T1 (formerly known as Niagara). Schwartz understands the market dynamics (Windows on x86, for example) that get Sun to more volume. He writes:
The chip is built for Solaris, and built for the internet - for jobs like searching, web serving, video streaming or ripping through database transactions (we will be admittedly weak for bomb simulation). Niagara will run existing Solaris apps without recompilation - offering complete binary compatibility for the massive SPARC installed base, and a simple recompile to move from x64 (or vice versa). There will be nothing like it in the industry - and its arrival will give us the two strongest industry standard server lineups [Niagara and AMD Opteron servers] the market's ever seen.
Schwartz describes the new SPARC processor as taking the concept of dual core processors to an "absolute extreme," with up to eight cores, each capable of running four threads simultaneously.
"Doing the math, we'll be delivering a 32-way chip, running 9.6GHz, which sips power (about 70 watts). On performance-per-watt metrics, we believe we'll be a factor of 5 better than what IBM just announced," Schwartz wrote. Sun's PR materials also point to being the first processor with four memory controllers, more security, better crypto processing performance.
Of course, Schwartz is waving the Sun flag and taunting competitors with his 'fastest processor' and Solaris download count. Now it's a question of whether the combination will get Sun back in gear, along with the new Galaxy Opteron x64 servers. Systems will be available before the end of the year, as well as more independent testing to validate the fastest chip claims.
If Sun really wants to soak up the server volume, what about making Linux work with the T1? Or, is this an all Sun/Solaris ecosystem play? "We've been approached by many folks to run Linux on T1-- and we are aggressive supporters of running more open source, beyond Solaris/OpenSolaris," Schwartz said in an email. "Nothing would make me happier."
However, the eco-performance of the T1 may turn out to be the major differentiator. Sun claims that the T1 is the world's "first eco-responsible processor." It's Sun's latest marketing theme, but it's a focus that should be at the top of any manufacturer's list of goals.
At Sun's Summit on 21st Century Eco-Responsibility today, CEO Scott McNealy said that Sun was going to make money in a socially and eco-responsible way. Conveniently, the power consumption characteristics of the T1 are impressive. Datacenters owners are tormented by heat generation and power consumption costs. Based on Sun's calculations, if half of the entry-level servers sold in the last three years were replaced with T1s, the equivalent of the carbon dioxide emissions produced by 1,000,000 SUVs would be eliminated each year. And, Sun is imaging the power savings it could deliver to Google and other major Web destinations and high volume transaction operations, and the revenue it will generate.
Sun has made a lot of bets that are somewhat ahead of the market--$1 per CPU compute utility, promoting grids, software subscriptions for an enterprise and desktop stack, open sourcing its software and thin clients. The UltraSPARC T1 is another bet.
The bets all have a common foundation--commoditizing infrastructure. The T1 or enterprise software stack isn't a commodity, but the computing cycles and services delivered are moving in that direction. The T1 (what does the 'T' stand for? Terminator?) may be the piece that helps connect all of Sun's efforts around creating a clear value proposition that is measurably different from competitors.
Update: The "T" in UltraSPARC T1 stand for "Throughput."