Sun lifts lid off Niagara 2 processor

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Sun lifts lid off Niagara 2 processor

Sun Microsystems is scheduled to release its Niagara 2 processor on Tuesday at a company event in Silicon Valley. The chip will officially be christened UltraSparc T2 and servers based on the chip are expected to ship later this year.

The processor replaces the Niagara 1 that was released in November 2005. Both chips target the space of high throughput servers, systems that have to perform lots of relatively simple calculations such as web servers or telecommunications applications and routers.

The 8-core Niagara 2 doubles the number of threads over the previous model to eight, allowing the chip to perform 64 tasks simultaneously. Because the chip moves from a 90nm to a 65nm production process, Sun achieved a 10 per cent reduction in its overall size.

The chip also offers two virtualised 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports, an embedded memory controller and features eight cryptographic accelerators. Each core gains a floating point unit that accelerates number crunching applications such as those found in scientific simulations.

Jean Bozman, a research vice president with analyst firm IDC, typified at the chip as a model that is better optimized to address actual customer workloads. The Niagara 1 was essentially based on technology that Sun purchased when it acquired Afara in 2002.

"This represents more of the Sun engineering," Bozman told

"It's more optimized for what they want it to."

"Floating point was a weakness in Niagara," said Rick Hetherington, chief technology officer for Microelectronics at Sun. Even though the chip isn't particularly targeting floating point intensive applications, such calculations occasionally occur in most real world applications.

"We cautioned customers against using the Niagara chip [for applications] that may have had floating point content above one or two per cent. That's no longer the case with Niagara 2," Hetherington said.

Sun in fact posted the highest floating point benchmark results for any single CPU server, beating both IBM's Power6 chips as well as Intel's Xeon and AMD's upcoming Barcelona processor.

The addition of features that are normally found in a server's chip set caused Sun to refer to Niagara 2 as a "server on a chip". The name is a reference to the "system on a chip" moniker that is commonly used to indicate a processor with an integrated graphics processor.

The embedded network controller doesn't just move the feature closer to the chip's cache memory, which cuts on power consumption and increases the overall chip speed. It also allows the chip to instantly route instructions and data to the appropriate thread and core, again increasing the chip's performance.

Hetherington expects that the cryptographic accelerators will primarily benefit e-commerce and banking customers, because it allows them to encrypt web pages and other data without sacrificing overall performance. In routers and switches the feature enables users to closely scrutinise all network traffic, tracking down malware as well as users seeking unauthorised access to information.

Moving features from the chipset directly into the processor has increased the overall power demand from the processor from 70 Watt for Niagara 1 to 123 Watt for the new model when running at full capacity.

Niagara 2 is currently available to system builders. The server vendor experts to start shipping its first Niagara 2-based systems later this year.

Similar to its predecessor, Sun has also released the source code of the chip's design under an open source licence, which allows third party device makers to create custom designs. The code is available for download as of today.
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