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Santa Clara, Calif.
Octomber 08, 2002

Sun Microsystems Inc. said it plans to use technology gained from a recent acquisition to develop specialized microprocessors that will have up to eight CPU cores on each chip and will be able to handle different forms of network traffic.

Sun is working on a set of eight-core SPARC processors that could crunch transaction data and also take on IT tasks such as churning through TCP/IP requests, said Graham Lovell, a product marketing director at the company, during a press briefing last week.

Lovell wouldn’t provide a date when users might see the new processors, but he said the devices are coming “sooner than you might think.” He indicated that the technology supporting multiple CPU cores, which Sun acquired in its July purchase of San Jose-based Afara WebSystems Inc., will initially appear in systems with up to four processors.

Vendors such as San Jose-based Alacritech Inc. have come out with network cards called TCP/IP offload engines, or TOEs, that are designed to speed up TCP/IP processing jobs for servers and storage systems. But according to Lovell, Sun’s approach would offload those jobs to a dedicated set of CPU cores on a processor instead of requiring a separate accelerator.

“It gives much more flexibility when it’s on a chip,” Lovell said, adding that Sun expects the technology to improve the performance of its lower-end systems that handle e-mail, file, print and multimedia data-serving applications.

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., said chips such as the ones Sun envisions could help solve problems facing server vendors that are seeing network bandwidth threatening to outpace processor performance. For example, 10 Gigabit Ethernet networks could place a huge burden on servers because of their potential to increase the volume of network traffic, Haff said.

“If Sun or somebody else can make a processor be 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,” he said.

The specialized chips potentially could also handle tasks such as processing Secure Sockets Layer requests and churning through large graphics files, Haff said. Dedicating these functions to a specific part of a processor would free the rest of the CPU cores on the chip to perform regular data processing work, he added.

IBM already offers servers powered by a dual-core Power 4 chip, and both Sun and Hewlett-Packard Co. expect to offer dual-core processors for their Unix servers sometime next year (see story). Putting two cores on a single piece of silicon can make servers almost twice as powerful. But efforts to develop eight-core processors for larger systems have been moving more slowly.