Sun has announced the UltraSPARC T2, which it has dubbed the world's fastest commodity microprocessor.
Formerly known as the "Niagara 2" project, the UltraSPARC T2 processor features eight cores and eight threads per core; dual, virtualizable, multithreaded 10 GBps Ethernet ports with built-in packet classification; eight cryptographic acceleration units; eight floating point units; eight lanes of PCI Express I/O; quad memory controllers that deliver more than 50 GBps memory access; and up to sixty-four logical domains. With each thread capable of running its own operating system, the chip delivers a 64-way system on a single chip.
The UltraSPARC T2 is the first processor to integrate multiple systems-virtualization, processing, networking, security, floating point units, and accelerated memory access-onto a single piece of silicon. As a general-purpose processor, the UltraSPARC T2 also provides support for the massively threaded, open source Solaris operating system and other realtime operating systems, as well as future versions of Ubuntu Linux. In addition, the new processor features Sun's CoolThreads chip multithreading while drawing fewer than two watts per thread. Sun plans to release source code for the UltraSPARC T2 processor to the OpenSPARC community and the UltraSPARC T2 processor design to the open source community through the GPL license. The UltraSPARC T2 processor will be available in production quantities this quarter, with prices starting below $1,000, and licensing options for derivative works.
This announcement is important for a few reasons, perhaps the least of which is that this is Sun's latest and greatest processor. From a purely technical perspective, the T2 offers many substantial advances that will likely only grow in importance over time. The multicore, multithreaded reality of this processor is a harbinger of the future of software, especially in high-performance environments.
As the industry has learned, simply ramping up the clock rate of processors does not lead to efficiency, especially with respect to power consumption and heat dissipation. Although we are beginning to see tacit recognition of this fact at the hardware level as dual-core and quad-core processors are becoming increasingly common, most software is still of the single-threaded mold, and fails to take advantage of this new architectural approach. But as the reality of physics, power, and thermal dynamics settles in, we expect that industry will have no choice but to move in the same direction as the T2.
We are also intrigued by the number of formerly discreet external components/capabilities that are offered on the die with the T2. The native support for PCI Express as well as onboard cryptographic capabilities and other enhancements are well positioned to not only reduce the cost of systems built around the processor, but also to offer attractive performance for encryption-oriented workloads. Given all the fuss about compliance, and inadvertent disclosure of information and whatnot, having onboard cryptography that operates without massively slowing down performance lends credence to the concept of encrypting everything all the time. While an extreme approach to securing information, for some organizations, the ability to do so without the expenditure on additional off-board hardware or bearing intolerable delays with software-based solutions is an ability that we believe will be well received.
While Sun undoubtedly wants to position the T2 as a commodity chip, in the sense of the Athlon or Xeon, this notion at present requires the reader to take it with a grain of salt. However, in the future view, the direction presented by Sun in the T2 may become more mainstream than we might expect. Sun states that it believes that the UltraSPARC T2 processor makes possible a new breed of compact, power-efficient, highly integrated devices such as routers, switches, network devices, medical imaging, industrial printing, etc. From a technical perspective, this would seem quite true; from a market penetration perspective, the Copernican Company has its work cut out. Nevertheless, as the future-thinker that it is, Sun may well be able to pull off some of this. The T2 is another example of Sun's out-of-the-box, perhaps a bit off-the-beaten-path, approach to the marketplace. As history has shown, this approach is often the one that delivers the best ROI for Sun, and in the process its customers.
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