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Volume 8, Number 12 -- March 27, 2008

Yen Steps Down as Microelectronics Head, Exits Sun

Published: March 27, 2008

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

David Yen, the two-decade veteran of Sun Microsystems who has in one way, shape, or form been involved in the company's microprocessor and system designs for nearly as long as the company has been in existence, announced this week that he is stepping down from running Sun's Microelectronics unit and is, in fact, leaving the company. The announcement follows in the wake of Sun's disclosure that it has picked a new foundry partner and that its "Rock" UltraSparc RK multicore processors would be a year late to market.

As is usually the case with such departures, only the insiders at the company know why Yen left. The fact that he has survived the trials and tribulations at Sun--the delays in the early 2000s for the UltraSparc-III chips, the rejiggering of the dual-core UltraSparc-IV chips, the killing off of the UltraSparc-V chips in April 2004 in favor of the multicore designs now known as "Niagara" and Rock--suggests that Yen has been a valued member of the Sun team. He has been given leadership positions in the server, storage, and chip units as Sun has reconfigured itself many times in the past decade, and was notably given control of the storage unit at Sun after Sun acquired StorageTek nearly three years ago. Most recently, when Sun broke its Microelectronics unit free of its System group a year ago, Yen was made its general manager and given the jobs of steering the development of the Niagara and Rock families of chips, of promoting the open sourcing of chip designs, and of finding Sun a new chip fab partner because Texas Instruments was getting out of the business of creating chip manufacturing processes. Sun partnered with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing for its future 45 nanometer chips; TI is still doing the manufacturing of 65-nanometer chips, including the future Rocks.

Sparc chip delays never go down well with the Systems group at Sun, of course, because Sun and its partners want to be on the front end of technology waves, surfing them, not being swamped by a competitor's wake. Sun's repeated delays with its Sparc line since the late 1990s were both embarrassing and costly, but then again, they were no worse than delays that rivals IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Advanced Micro Devices have suffered over the years. Hitting a target delivery date for an ambitious new chip design is the exception, not the rule.

So the tongues that are undoubtedly wagging in the chip and systems worlds about Yen's departure are probably more sure than they ought to be that Yen was pushed rather than jumped to a new job he is taking at Juniper Networks. If you have ever had a job for two decades--and I say this with 19 years of experience as an IT journalist--maybe sometimes you have to do something different or you will lose your mind. (I have lots of hobbies to keep me sane. Well, sort of.) Juniper has not said what Yen will be doing at the company, but it will probably have something to do with designing custom silicon for networking gear. (No, really?) Before joining Sun in 1998, Yen was a cofounder of supercomputer maker Cydrome, and prior to that he worked at IBM Research doing manufacturing automation research and at TRW doing processor development.

Sun has tapped Mike Splain, a technology fellow and the senior vice president and chief technology officer of its Systems group, to be the acting head of the Microelectronics group. With the transition to TSMC under way and Sun getting a year-long breather for Rock, Splain is stepping into the job in a better position then if he had to grab the Rock bull by the horns and get it out the door before 2008 was closed and had to also get a new fab partner for Sun. It very well could be that Yen, who said the fab relationship was a top priority for him when Microelectronics was reconstituted a year ago, felt free to leave the company once this was accomplished. A chip is not designed by one person, after all, but an army of hundreds.


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