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OpenSparc Project Taps Advisory Board, Sees Linux Momentum

Corrected: October 2, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

While there are several hundred open source software projects in the world, there are very few open hardware projects. The OpenSparc project, launched by Sun Microsystems to create an open source community centered around its "Niagara" Sparc T1 processors, is probably the most famous, and Sun will today report significant progress in building out that community. The company will also be talking up the rapid adoption of Linux that the commercialized T1 servers have seen in the past few months and the surprisingly high number of downloads of the Sparc T1 hardware specifications.

First up, Sun has created an independent OpenSparc advisory board, which includes two representatives from Sun as well as three other industry luminaries. "Just like any well-behaved open source project, we want to establish an independent advisory board," explains Fadi Azhari, director of marketing and business development for OpenSPARC. This board will steer the OpenSparc project and, after a 12-month period, it will create a permanent governance board for the project. The initial board members include Simon Phipps, chief open source officer at Sun, and David Weaver, a senior systems engineer on the Sparc T1 development efforts inside Sun.

The company has also tapped semiconductor analyst Nathan Brookwood, founder of Insight64 to sit on the advisory board. Brookwood worked in various technical and marketing positions at Univac, Digital, Prime, and Convergent Technologies, and was a chip and systems analyst at Gartner's Dataquest unit for many years before founding Insight 64 in 1998. Jose Renau, a professor at the Univeristy of California at Santa Cruz, has also been asked to sit on the governance board. Renau leads the Micro Architecture at Santa Cruz (MASC) project, which was founded in 2004 to examine energy and performance trade-offs in processor design, thread-level speculation, the use of field programmable gate array (FPGA) co-processors, and other issues surrounding processor architectures. Finally, Robert Ober, one of five research fellows at chip maker and storage juggernaut LSI Logic. Ober was just named chief technology officer at LSI in June, and formerly held a CTO position at chip maker Advanced Micro Devices's mobile processor group.

Most open source projects gauge their success and failure by the number of downloads, and so it is with the OpenSparc project. But because the downloads for the OpenSparc project are not uncompiled software that regular people can use, but rather chip specs and simulation models that only chip designers can understand, having a few thousand downloads is a lot. Back in March, Sun released the Verilog Register Transfer Level, or RTL, specs for the Sparc T1 chip as open source files. These files would normally be guarded like the family jewels by any chip maker, because they would allow engineers to study and to tweak the Sparc T1 design. This is, of course, what Sun wants people to do. Sun also released the verification suite and simulation models for the Sparc T1 chips and Solaris 10 Unix simulation images. These features were released under the GNU General Public License v2.

According to Azhari, the OpenSparc project has seen more than 3,500 downloads of the RTL files and over 2,600 downloads of the related software. "We are blown away by this number of downloads," says Azhari. He says that the downloads went to tool developers, chip makers, system OEMs, academics, software vendors, and other interested parties that might want to take a peek inside the architecture.

To help spur the OpenSparc project a little further, Sun is making available software precompiled and tuned for the Sparc T1 chip. This SAMP stack, which is also being called the CoolStack by Sun, includes the Solaris 10 Unix variant, the Apache Web server, the MySQL database, and the PHP scripting language and runtime, all compiled using Sun Studio 11 for the Sparc T1 architecture. This software will be made available for free. So will a tool called CoolTuner, which is a systems program cooked up by Sun to automatically configure, patch, and tune a Sparc T1000 or Sparc T2000 server so it is set up with best practices. Now those participating in the OpenSparc project will have access to the source code in the CoolTuner, and they can make their own optimizations and tweaks to it.

OpenSparc will also announce that Gentoo Linux is now ported to the Sparc T1 chip, and that Ubuntu Linux is seeing some significant uptake on the Sparc T1 processors. According to Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, which offers commercial support for the Ubuntu Linux variant it created, Ubuntu Long Term Support 6.06 has been downloaded over 3,000 times for OpenSparc platforms and is confirmed to be running on at least 800 sites. Ubuntu support for the Sparc T1s came out at the end of May. While that may not seem like a high number of downloads, Ubuntu is new to the server racket, and Sparc T1 downloads are tracking to about 70 percent of the level of downloads for Ubuntu LTS on PowerPC-based servers. When you consider that Ubuntu has been supporting PowerPC chips for a lot longer than Sparc T1 chips, this is significant. Ubuntu is a humanized variant of the Debian Linux distribution, which is rock-solid but only usable by people with proficiency with Linux and open source tools.

Shuttleworth expected the Sparc T1 chips to be popular for Ubuntu shops that wanted to deploy Web infrastructure workloads, but was somewhat surprised to see that companies in the life sciences--and particularly genomics--were looking at the T1-Linux combination. While a lot of high-performance computing workloads need lots of floating point math to be done as part of simulations, genomics is often a matter of searching through gene sequences to find specific base pairs. This is integer work, not floating point work, and given the attractive thermal characteristics and multithreaded nature of the T1s, people are playing around with T1s to do this kind of work.

The T1 chip has eight simplified Sparc cores, each with four threads, all on a single chip. That chip also includes 3 MB of L2 cache, shared by all the cores, a DDR2 main memory controller, a PCI Express I/O controller, and a JBus interconnection port. It runs at around 75 watts, and has about 75 percent thread efficiency on thread friendly workloads. The T1 chip also has a cryptographic accelerator, and Ubuntu's interim release, due soon, will include support for that feature.

A kicker to the T1 chip, code-named "Niagara-II" and to be branded the Sparc T2, was taped out in April and is expected to appear in Sun systems in mid-to-late 2007, according to Azhari. The T2 chip is expected to have 64 threads, which might have meant 16 cores with four threads each, but it turns out Sun will be using 8 cores with 8 threads each. The move to a 65 nanometer process could mean that Sun can crank the clock speed up from the current 1.2 GHz on the top-bin T1 parts as well as double the number of threads. It would be interesting to see a 2 GHz part with twice as many threads. But such a chip may not be able to stay within the same thermal envelope. Sun is probably going to add SMP or NUMA clustering electronics to the T2, so more than one can be ganged up inside a server.

Finally, the OpenSparc project will announce that the first spin-off of the T1 design, the "Sirocco" S1 chip from Anglo-Italian chip maker Simply RISC, is shipping. The S1 chip was created by taking a single T1 core and implementing it with a Wishbone system-on-a-chip interconnect bridge. Simply RISC is hoping that the S1 chip is adopted for mobile phones, PDAs, and other embedded devices.


Ubuntu to Support Linux on Sparc T1 Chips

Sun Releases OpenSparc T1 Specs, As Promised

Sun to Take New T1 Sparc Chip Open Source

This story has changed since it was originally published. We speculated that to get to 64 threads in the Niagara-II processors, Sun might jump to 16 cores. It will in fact merely double the number of threads per core to eight. [Corrected: 10/02/2006]

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Editors: Dan Burger, Timothy Prickett Morgan, Alex Woodie
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