Sun: 'These systems are like a rack on a chip'

Three weeks ago, Sun took the wraps off its three year project code-named Niagara and gave the newest member of the company's UltraSparc family of processors an official name: the T1.  Although the T1 is rated at 1.

Three weeks ago, Sun took the wraps off its three year project code-named Niagara and gave the newest member of the company's UltraSparc family of processors an official name: the T1.  Although the T1 is rated at 1.2 Ghz, in some configurations, it has as many as eight separate cores (it comes in 4 and 6-core configurations as well) and Sun, which has been unafraid to set high expectations for the processor, has not shied away from doing the math.  Company officials refer to it as a 9.6Ghz processor. 

But, with the T1, packing 8 1.2 Ghz cores on single chip wasn't the only rabbit Sun pulled out of its hat.  Using a technology Sun calls "Coolthreads," each is capable of running four separate execution pipelines bringing the total number of individual threads per 8 core processor to 32.  Between the world record-breaking performance Sun claims the chip to have delivered, the tiny amount of space it requires (for something that accomodates so many simultaneous threads), and the T1's reduced appetite for power (the company rates it at 2 watts per thread),  Sun Scalable Systems Group (SSG) vice president of marketing Fred Kohout says enterprises should think of it as a rack on a chip.

But, before the industry could really size up the T1, one question remained.  How much? After all, if the all that performance is going to bring back memories of the $250,000 refrigerator sized Intel-based systems that companies like NCR sold in the 90's, then who's gonna care?  To find out the answer, we had to wait for Sun to announce servers that would include the chip. Earlier this week (see Is Sun's UltraSparc T1 the Terminator), Sun rolled out a pair of servers -- the T1000 and the T2000 -- that didn't just deliver the T1 to market, they delivered it at an astonishingly low pricepoint.  For example, for the entry level 1U-sized (What's a U?) T1000 with a 6-core CPU and 2GB memory, the price is $2995 (less than some high end notebook computers). 

At the high-end, to buy a 2U-sized T2000 with 8 cores and 32 GB of memory, IT buyers will have to dip into their budgets for $26,000 (chicken feed for that kind of power compared to the old days).  The T2000 also includes the sort of high availability features such as redundant fans and power supplies that some shops need to ensure that mission critical applications -- especially the Web facing ones that these servers are designed to support -- stay online.

To learn more about the servers, I interviewed Kohout as well as SSG director of engineering Jeff O'Neal and  Sun's director of developer tool marketing Dan Roberts (taking full advantage of the T1's prowess isn't always automatic and may require some additional development work on behalf of software engineers).  The interview is available as an MP3 that can be downloaded or, if you’re already subscribed to ZDNet’s IT Matters series of audio podcasts, it will show up on your system or MP3 player automatically. See ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in.  During the interview, I ask Kohout and O'Neal if coming out with a new UltraSparc server now doesn't send a confusing message to the market now that the company seems to be so deeply partnered with AMD in delivering an x86-compatible version of its Solaris operating system.  I also asked them how, if the company is giving away its software (announced last week) and selling such low cost hardware (where the margins have to be pretty low), Sun expects to make any money.  Next thing you know, they'll be giving away Sun COO Jonathan Schwartz and CEO Scott McNealy to anybody willing to pay for their maintenance.  

Anyway, here are a couple of noteworthy quotes from the interview:

Kohout on why the industry as a whole must revisit processor design: "You don't end up with this kind of breakthrough in innvoation if you start yesterday. We started this project three years ago where we had some really bright people at the company understand that if we [the industry] kept architecting processors and systems in the fashion we were, that we were going to quickly eclipse the customers' ability to meet demand because we would run them out of space, power, and cooling....are sort of taking existing architectures and cores and they're tyring to fit more of them into a space but they haven't fundamentally addressed the issue of massive threading and #2, power and space.  So, that, I think that We need to characterize  that more as solving a problem in the near term on their basis. They've got to get down and rearchitect the chip like we did in order to get to the threading that we're talking about today."

O'Neal on the advantages of being both a hardware and operating system company: "Sun is the only company that could have put [an OS and this processor] together and has an engine that actually devours those threads and processes them. So, that's how you get the work done....anytime it takes multiple companies, it adds an extra layer of complexity, an extra set of differing agendas. Sun has been able to concentrate, in fact for the past 15/20 years on one single idea. How to embrace the Internet age and push the technology and innovate further. We're doing that at the chip level. We're doing that at the system level. We're doing that at the operating system level and of course we brought the world Java: also a thread rich environment."

Given the way Sun is open sourcing everything, I also asked the men if there was any sort of open source play associated with the announcement of the servers. During the interview, which was recorded last week in advance of the announcement, Kohout said "we're not prepared to announce anything at this point.. we'll seehow it plays out over the next couple of weeks."  However, in the days since the interview took place, Sun went ahead and announced that it's T1 implementation of the Sparc International standard (see Will the real chip standard please stand up) will be made available on an open source basis.  Earlier this year, I called SPARC the black-eye of open standards.