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Sun readies processors with cores galore

Sun Microsystems is poised to make a technology shift in its low-end server line, providing customers with specialised processors that can handle different forms of network traffic and have as many as eight processor cores on each chip.

Sun manufactures a wide range of one- to four-processor servers that could be the first systems to use technology the company gained earlier this year through its acquisition of Afara WebSystems.

Sun plans to bring out eight-core processors that could help with tasks such as crunching data, but then also take on jobs such as churning through TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) requests, said Graham Lovell, a Sun marketing director.

Processors that can handle special functions could help solve problems facing the server industry as network bandwidth threatens to outpace processor performance.

"If Sun or somebody else can really make a processor radically more efficient in terms of handling TCP/IP processing without the need to do anything special from a high-level programming point of view, that is really very interesting," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata.

Like its rival Hewlett-Packard, Sun expects to offer dual-core processors for its midrange and high-end Unix servers next year.

IBM already offers servers powered by a dual-core Power 4 chip. Putting two cores on a single piece of silicon can make servers almost twice as powerful as they are today.

However, efforts to develop eight-core processors for the larger systems have been moving more slowly, with results not expected for several years.

For systems that use up to four processors, however, Sun's acquisition of Afara appears to have given the vendor a boost, and progress towards lower-end systems that use eight-core processors is being made more swiftly.

Afara had been doing work with its own chip designs that differed from work already being done at Sun. Lovell would not provide a date when users might see the technology but said it's coming "sooner than you might think".

The specialised chips could potentially handle tasks such as TCP/IP off-loading, secure sockets layer (SSL) requests and churning through large graphics files, Haff said. Dedicating these functions to a discrete part of the processor would free the rest of the chip to perform other tasks.

The practice of offloading certain functions is becoming more important as network speeds increase. It normally takes about 1GHz of chip power to process 1Gbit of TCP/IP traffic, Haff said. Networks running at 10Gbits would place a huge burden on servers as the volumes of network traffic increase dramatically.

Vendors such as Alacritech have come out with network cards called TCP/IP off-load engines (TOEs) to perform similar offloading for servers and storage systems. Sun's approach would do the offloading directly on a chip.

"It gives much more flexibility when it's on a chip," Lovell said.

Sun expects the technology to improve the performance of its lower-end servers that handle e-mail, file, print and media file serving.

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