Sun sets date for faster UltraSparc III

The company says the 900 MHz update to its delay-dogged UltraSparc III processor will ship by October, eight months later than initially planned.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor
Sun Microsystems will begin shipping a revamped, top-end UltraSparc III chip by October, the company said Monday.

Sun announced 750MHz versions of its UltraSparc III chip in September 2000, promising a 900MHz version using faster copper connection technology by March. Sun was unable to meet that deadline, but the company said Monday that the chip has passed qualification tests and will ship in workstations in the next 90 days.

The Palo Alto, Calif., server giant didn't say when the chip would ship in servers, the networked computers that sometimes use dozens of CPUs--the bread and butter of Sun's revenues.

Though the new chip is an improvement over current UltraSparc III models, the bigger issue facing Sun is encouraging customers to switch from older UltraSparc II chips, said Sanford Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi. UltraSparc III chips are in less than 20 percent of server shipments at present, he estimates.

"Probably everything associated with UltraSparc III has been pretty radically delayed," Sacconaghi said. "It has been a very tough rollout."

The UltraSparc III is the heart of a new line of servers Sun has begun selling to fend off IBM and Hewlett-Packard, two larger companies trying to knock Sun from its perch at the top of the Unix server market share ladder.

Sun already faced one problem with the UltraSparc III chip. The glitch, which could cause incorrect mathematical calculations, showed up only in lab tests, but Sun determined the problem was significant enough to issue a patch that dampened the chip's performance.

In addition to the copper model, Sun has been working to offer a 900MHz version of the UltraSparc III chip with the older aluminum interconnect technology, Sun has said.

Texas Instruments manufactures Sun's high-end chips. In May, though, Sun signed a deal to have Taiwanese TI rival United Microelectronics (UMC) build lower-end Sun CPUs.

The 900 MHz UltraSparc III is built using circuitry with a feature size of 0.15 microns--about one 600th the width of a human hair. The smaller the process size, the more chips can be carved from silicon wafers and the less power the chips consume. Intel's newest chips are built with a 0.13-micron manufacturing process.

In addition, the new UltraSparcs use a technology called "low-k dielectric" that speeds performance by reducing interference between nearby wires. IBM announced it had developed low-k dielectric chips in April 2000.

However, the chips don't use a technology called "silicon on insulator" (SOI), also developed at IBM.

The UltraSparc III has 29 million transistors, the components that make up the circuits that actually process instructions, Sun said. Features on the chip enable the chips to communicate with as much as 8MB of high-speed "cache" memory. The chips also include features to connect to a data pathway that transfers information between CPUs at a speed of 9.6 gigabytes per second. And the chips have built-in circuitry to communicate with a computer's main memory--as much as 16GB per chip.

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