Monday, Sun (Nasdaq:SUNW) , based in Palo Alto, Calif., will disclose its plans for a microprocessor with a radical new architecture designed to handle complex graphics, voice and video, challenging Intel Corp. (Nasdaq:INTC) and other chip makers in the fast-growing market for communications and media-processing chips. A brainchild of the company's chief scientist, Bill Joy, the new chip is dubbed MAJC, which is pronounced "magic" and stands for "microprocessor architecture for Java computing."
Thanks to an unusual design that essentially turns a single chip into a parallel-processing system, MAJC chips should be able to display complex graphics and handle digital-communications tasks at extremely high speeds -- far faster than a general-purpose Intel chip, for instance.
Sun officials already audaciously refer to MAJC as "the most important semiconductor architecture of the next 20 years." In part, that's because the chip is particularly well-suited, they say, to handling the enormous streams of visual and audio data expected in the multimedia age. In addition, MAJC should yield a family of microprocessors that are easy to program using Sun's Java language, that can be used in everything from cheap consumer devices to Internet server computers, and that over time will grow even more powerful, and more quickly, than rival chips.
With MAJC, "it will be much, much easier to build media capabilities into commonplace devices and networks," Joy says.
Sun, for instance, claims that within several years, it should be possible to generate an interactive computer-animated movie like "Toy Story" in real time using a single MAJC chip -- a task that took roomfuls of graphics servers several weeks. Analysts are reserving judgment on such claims until Sun formally discloses the details of the architecture on Aug. 16. But those familiar with the broad outline of Sun's new chip are impressed with MAJC's innovative design.
MAJC's central advantage derives from Sun's decision to design its chips with modular, high-performance computing engines, each of which is really a processor in its own right. Where a typical PC microprocessor consists of as many as three separate computing engines, each focused on handing a different type of data, a MAJC chip will be built out of a number of identical general-purpose processors that can split up computing tasks in a more efficient manner. That design turned out to be ideal for handling multimedia data, which can easily be split up into independent tasks and farmed out to processors on a single MAJC chip, says Marc Tremblay, MAJC's chief architect. "If you are processing video data, you could have one processor working on the upper half of the image, and the other on the lower part," he says.
Other advantages also flow from MAJC's basic design. Because it is conceptually as simple to design a MAJC chip containing, say, eight processors as one with a single processor, Sun figures it can sell cheap versions of the chip for use in inexpensive consumer-electronics devices as well as high-end versions to handle enormous streams of data coursing over the Internet or through corporate networks.
Such parallel processing at the chip level, while not entirely a new idea, hasn't fared well in practical applications because it's generally difficult to write software that takes advantage of the design. Java, however, is a relatively simple computer language that's already designed to support parallel processing. Sun, however, isn't being a zealot about Java; MAJC chips will also run programs written in other languages, such as C and C++.
Totally new microprocessor designs aren't launched very often, and Sun's decision to jump into this field shows how crucial it thinks the multimedia age will be.
It's still a risky bet, though; several start-ups that tried roughly the same thing have crashed and burned over the past several years, after their chips failed to win broad acceptance. Intel, which has also moved aggressively into communications-related chips, will also pose a competitive threat.