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Sun Publishes Sparc T1 Specs, Picks GPL for License

Published: February 14, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Some companies give lip service to whatever hot thing is driving the IT market, and others undergo a dramatic, full-scale, religious conversion when they get caught outside the mainstream. If a technology isn't nailed down, then Sun Microsystems seems bent on taking it open source. First Solaris, then the whole Sun software stack, and now the "Niagara" Sparc T1 processor. Sun provided the specs for the T1 chip today at the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco, and committed to releasing the T1 under the GNU General Public License.

While it is not at all clear how Sun will make money servicing the products it open sources, what is clear is that Sun believes that the only way to beat the open source movement is to join it. So Sun has committed to open sourcing its own technologies to try to get as broad an a base of adopters as possible and also to spawn innovation from a community of developers including people inside of and outside of Sun. Sun hasn't taken the open sourcing too far, you will notice. Java remains under Sun's tight its control, and it surely has not provided the software masks and Verilog code for its UltraSparc-V+ or UltraSparc-IIIi processors. Still, this is a bold move, even Sun's competitors have to admit. Only time will tell if it is brilliant or suicidal.

Sunil Joshi, a director in Sun's Scalable Systems Group, which creates Sparc processors and the Sun Fire systems that use them, is spearheading the open sourcing of the T1 processor. And he is obviously very keen on the idea. "The very fact that we are opening up the chip and these specifications will change the game in the chip market," he said.

At the OSBC, Sun didn't deliver the full open sourcing of the T1 chip, but rather released a freebie UltraSparc Architecture 2005 specification and the companion HyperVisor API specification for the T1 chips. As it turns out, the T1 chip is the very first Sun chip to use a microcode-based hypervisor layer, which will allow it to virtualize chip features and to support multiple and incompatible operating systems on the processor. Some of the virtualization is done in hardware, some is done in microcode.

The two specs that were released today are together the basic documentation that techies need to understand to port other operating systems to the T1 chip. Sun not only has Linux and FreeBSD ports in mind, but it has solicited help from David Miller, a Linux guru, and Kip Macy, who ported FreeBSD Unix to the open source Xen hypervisor, to start working on ports of Linux and FreeBSD to the T1 chips. These specs are available for free at the OpenSparc community site.

Joshi said that Sun is on track to formally open source the T1 chip sometime in March, and he offers some estimates of how long it will take to bring Linux and FreeBSD to the chips--adding the qualifier that it is really up to the Linux and FreeBSD communities to figure out their own schedules. Sun is helping with the ports and has done its own Solaris ports, so it has the best idea of how long it can take. "This is not the most complex thing in the world to do," said Joshi. "It is a relatively easy port--on the order of months to quarters, not years."

At the OSBC, Sun president and chief operating officer Jonathan Schwartz said Sun plans to use the prevalent free software license, the GNU General Public License, to govern the T1 chip design's release.

"Proprietary technology relegates you either to a niche or to the ditch," said Schwartz. "We're growing our market opportunity by steadfastly open sourcing the entirety of our software portfolio--from the Solaris OS to Java developer tools--and now we're taking the next step by open sourcing the world's most innovative microprocessor under the GPL. Giving our customers more choice and driving community innovation expands our economic opportunity and is forcing our competitors to sit up and take notice--we are back on offense."

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Editors: Dan Burger, Timothy Prickett Morgan, Alex Woodie
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