MAJC faces developer hurdles

Developers will have to jump through technological hoops to effectively use the new whiz-bang architecture from Sun.

Sun Microsystems revealed a few of the secrets behind its new MAJC processor architecture this week -- but the real trick will be in getting the new architecture established.

To that end, Sun has outlined a four-year plan aimed at putting MAJC on the map. The plan, detailed at this week's Hot Chips conference, makes four basic assumptions. One assumption the Sun plan makes is that future computing tasks will be much different than they are today, and will require processors more adept at multimedia.

Another is that there will be a need for parallel processing, and that Java will be the dominant platform for networked devices, such as thin-clients and applications servers.

Finally, Sun is banking that companies will build technologies designed to plug into system-on-a-chip applications.

Sun is assuming, in other words, that there will be a need for processors that can handle voice-over-IP, streaming video and speech recognition, among other things, while at the same time taking advantage of multi-threaded Java applications. But to make MAJC successful as a system-on-a-chip technology, other companies will have to develop technologies -- called IP blocks -- to go with MAJC, according to Sun.

The MAJC architecture allows for the execution of up to four instructions in parallel. It also supports multi-threading, such as those capabilities present in Java. Those interested in writing applications for the chip can also do so in the C or C++ programming languages. MAJC also supports the ability for multiple processors to be placed on a single die, meaning that more than one processor -- anywhere from 2 to 1024 processors, in fact -- can be integrated into the same processor die.

Thus, even though each processor would work independently in performing a task or running a Java virtual machine, it would still be on the same piece of silicon and would be able to share Level 1 cache with other processors. Processors using the MAJC architecture will also offer high clock speeds, but at the same time will have the ability to process complex graphics ranging from voice data to video, Sun officials said.

The MAJC architecture itself will be used for the first time in a Sun workstation to be announced this fall, officials said. The technology will likely be used to aid the graphics capabilities of that machine. But aside from its use in Sun workstations, MAJC processors will also appear in devices such as set-top boxes and terminals, and will take on the role of network processor for applications such as video servers, said Sun.

For system-on-a-chip applications, MAJC also allows the integration of IP blocks, which range from modems to controllers for memory and peripheral. They would be combined into a MAJC processor. Using a "fast crossbar switch", the controller would be able to run at the full clock speed of the processor, thus increasing the speed. This would also help device makers to keep costs low by using a single processor instead of a number of chips.

Despite all of its attributes, developers point out that software will have to be written to take advantage of the MAJC architecture. "Sun is not the first to think of putting multiple processors on a single die. I really do not think it's even revolutionary," said one developer in an email to ZDNet.

"But it's still kind of cool. Hopefully technology like this can bring multiprocessing to the masses and further exploit the advantages of multi-threaded programming."