UltraSPARC® processors rise above commodity products

April 1, 2003
By Andy Ingram, vice president of processors and networking products at Sun Microsystems, Inc.

Microprocessors are often thought of as commodity components distinguished only by price. Yet Sun has proven that its open, noncommodity UltraSPARC processor chips deliver superior functionality that more than compensates for a slightly higher manufacturing cost.

If Sun had clung to a commodity-centric focus during the last 15 years, its customers might never have enjoyed the benefits of certain revolutionary advances in chip design, including reduced instruction set computer (RISC) and symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) technology. For Sun, it’s always been about finding the right balance between innovation and economy.

That approach continues today, and it has never been more valuable. The UltraSPARC processor’s chip multithreading (CMT) technology is ready to boost performance up to 50 times over existing UltraSPARC processor chips. The UltraSPARC processor and CMT enable administrators to harness the power of dozens of servers onto a single blade. The management and maintenance savings are as phenomenal as the technology itself.

Commodity Does Not Equal Open

In the microprocessor realm, the terms “open” and “commodity” are often used carelessly in a manner that erroneously equates them. This sows confusion both in the industry and in the marketplace.

The term “open” refers to the capability of products and technologies to connect and interoperate with each other. Open interfaces, be they hardware or software, are generally publicly documented and based on an explicit or de facto industry standard. For example, the Internet depends on the propagation of the TCP/IP networking protocol.

The term “commodity” implies a common component that offers negligible feature differentiation from similar components. Thus, price becomes the most significant point of comparison. Thanks to economies of scale, a commodity generally promises lower prices. And of course, lower costs are generally good. Yet by definition, a commodity does not promise greater functionality.

The confusion between “open” and “commodity” might be thickest when people talk about Intel processors. Some call Intel’s chips “open” because they are ubiquitous on desktop systems. Yet Intel neither openly shares its design and hardware interfaces nor publishes these specifications. Intel’s chips are not open; they are commodities.

What Open Looks Like

The UltraSPARC processor architecture, on the other hand, is truly open. SPARC International is an independent body that oversees and promotes the technology’s evolution. The SPARC-V9 processor instruction set is in the public domain, as are entire UltraSPARC processor designs, which can be used by any company to create derivative products. This is what “open” really means.

Sun’s investment in UltraSPARC processors and the Solaris Operating Environment runs counter to the arguments of those who tout the benefits of commodity computing. The PC market, where commodity chips such as the Intel Pentium are anointed as standards, shapes their perspective.

Yet the forces that drive commodity microprocessors would not naturally have delivered advanced RISC, SMP, and CMT designs. Regarding the latter, most PC software is not multithreaded and cannot take advantage of a microprocessor capable of running dozens of threads. Also, 32-bit architectures cannot address sufficient memory to support large-scale CMT designs.

What Open Does

Sun has always built its products around open standards and with commodity components when possible. Yet there are several instances in which Sun has gone beyond a commodity-centric approach in order to spur innovation and create superior value for its customers. It is this perspective that drives Sun’s investment in UltraSPARC processors and the Solaris Operating Environment.

In 1986, Sun introduced the first UltraSPARC processor, which employed a revolutionary RISC architecture. Compared to the complex instruction set computer (CISC) design common in microprocessors of that era, the RISC-based UltraSPARC processor was an incredible breakthrough. RISC-based systems were up to seven times more powerful than CISC-based systems, at a lower cost.

The UltraSPARC processor’s next major wave of innovation, beginning in 1992, incorporated SMP, which enabled large shared-memory computers. Sun enhanced the basic UNIX threading model to create the Solaris Operating Environment, the highly threaded UNIX-based operating system so renowned today. Taken together, these advances delivered performance that was 50 to 100 times faster than uniprocessor systems.

The UltraSPARC processor is now entering its third wave of innovation, thanks again to Sun’s approach that considers microprocessors more than commodities. With CMT, our engineers have integrated the power of large-scale SMP onto a single piece of silicon. A single UltraSPARC processor chip can now process dozens of threads simultaneously, a quantum change in computer design.

The Solaris Operating Environment, unlike most desktop operating systems, can leverage CMT to run 32 or 64 simultaneous threads. For threaded applications, future UltraSPARC processors will deliver up to 50 times the performance of today’s fastest UltraSPARC processor, without a significantly higher cost-per-chip.

And just as important as speed, CMT enables administrators to consolidate the infrastructure of dozens of servers onto a single blade. Imagine the savings in administration, maintenance, power, cooling, and floor space.

Finding the Balance

Ultimately, the burning issue in the microprocessor market is not about openness versus commodification. It’s about finding the right balance between true innovation and economies of scale. Sun continues to be committed to open hardware and software interfaces built on emerging, defined, and de facto standards. As we develop technology for UltraSPARC processors and the Solaris Operating Environment, Sun customers can count on openness and, above all, superior value.