Sun prepares Niagara chip for test production

Sun Microsystems is a step closer to producing the first of its next generation of "throughput computing" processors by...

Sun Microsystems is a step closer to producing the first of its next generation of "throughput computing" processors by completing the initial design of its first processor, codenamed Niagara, and manufacturing the first prototypes.

Analysts had expected Sun to begin production of the first Niagara chips - a process called "taping out" - by the end of 2003, but the departure of Niagara's lead designer, Les Kohn, as well as a switch in the foundry used to manufacture the processors may have set Niagara's schedule back, said Kevin Krewell, the editor-in-chief of The Microprocessor Report.

The company had expected to ship Niagara systems by the beginning of 2006 - later than the 2005 timeframe the company had predicted when it announced the Niagara processor early last year.

With tape-out occurring now, it is still possible that Sun could get beta systems into customers' hands by early 2005 and ship Niagara systems by 2005, said Krewell.

The troubled server company recently focused more resources on its throughput computing efforts after killing off two of its planned processors: the UltraSparc V and a dual-core processor, codenamed Gemini. This move is expected to accelerate the release of Niagara.

Sun, however, is sticking to the early 2006 date for Niagara system shipments. "Right now, more than ever, we're trying to be conservative about the expectations we set," said Sabrina Guttman, a Sun spokeswoman.

Niagara is based on a concept created by Kohn's company, Afara Websystems, which Sun acquired in 2002.

Designed to be a network-intensive processor with on-chip networking and security capabilities, Niagara will have eight processor cores, each of which will be capable of running four series of application instructions, called threads, simultaneously.

"It really is taking the idea of multicore multithreading to a much more radical approach than everybody else," said Krewell, who predicted that the chip will have appeal to users running multithreaded web services applications.

"If you look at where Sun is targeting this part, which is web services... it's  a very thread-rich environment, and having a processor that is also thread-rich seems like a natural thing."

Robert McMillian writes for IDG News Service

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