Volume 4, Number 12 -- April 5, 2007

Sun Boosts Performance of UltraSparc-IV+ Chips

Published: April 5, 2007

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Server maker Sun Microsystems may be getting ready to launch the Advanced Product Line of Sparc clone servers with partner Fujitsu, but that doesn't mean innovation and process improvements were not under way for its own "Panther" UltraSparc-IV+ line of processors. And to that end, before the APL boxes come to market, Sun has announced faster Panther chips for customers who are running out of headroom.

The clock speeds of the Panther chips came out lower than expected when they first hit the market for the Sun Fire Sparc-based server line in September 2005, debuting only in midrange machines and only at 1.5 GHz; at the time, the rumor was that Sun and its chip fab partner, Texas Instruments, could get the Panthers out the door at 1.6 GHz and relatively quickly get the speed up to 1.8 GHz as the chip spread across the entire Sun Fire line, which has machines that span from 4 to 72 CPU sockets.

That didn't quite happen. But Sun did eventually reach 1.8 GHz in August 2006. Clock speed was not as important as other tweaks that Sun put into the Panther chips, its second generation of dual-core UltraSparcs. The Panthers were kickers to the dual-core "Jaguar" UltraSparc-IVs, and they offered roughly twice as much oomph as the Jaguars because of tweaks in the chip design and the integration of a 2 MB of L2 cache memory onto the chip--the first time Sun put L2 cache on a chip. By doing that, the Panthers offered twice the performance of the Jaguars, and that meant Sun mostly closed an embarrassing performance gap with IBM, which had been eating Unix market share like a hungry fox locked in a henhouse for the prior five years thanks to its Power4 and Power5 servers.

With this week's announcement, Sun is able to deliver 1.95 GHz UltraSparc-IV+ parts in the Sun Fire server line and says that it can also deliver versions of the chip that run at 2.1 GHz for customers who need even more power. None of the machines on Sun's online store have the 2.1 GHz part available yet, and the server spec sheets do not even list it as an option yet. The 1.9 GHz part is listed in the tech specs, but is not in the configurator. Sun Fire machines are still being configured in that store with 1.5 GHz and 1.8 GHz parts.

There is, according to Shannon Elwell, group line manager at Sun's Systems group, a good reason for the scarcity of the new Panther parts on the Sun store. TI can't ship a lot of these parts, and therefore Sun is trying to constrain demand in two ways: by only allowing customers to special order the parts and by charging a 20 to 30 percent premium on systems with the 1.9 GHz and 2.1 GHz chips compared to machines configured with the 1.8 GHz Panthers. In the past, Sun has charged a premium for the extra performance, but exact system pricing on machines with the faster processors was not available as we went to press.

"We want to supply faster chips to critical customers, but we don't want the flood gates to open and then we have a supply issue in our fourth quarter," Elwell explained. This is exactly what happened last year this time, when Sun committed to faster Panthers and TI could not deliver enough of them.

The faster Panther processors should deliver between 8 percent and 17 percent more raw performance than the 1.8 GHz parts they replace. In general, the Panther chips provide about five times the performance of the single-core "Cheetah" UltraSparc-III and Jaguar UltraSparc-IV processors, which are still supported in the Sun Fire line. The kicker Panther processors can be used in the Sun Fire V490, V890, E2900, E4900, E6900, E20K, and E25K servers.

Solaris 9 and Solaris 10 are required for all Panther chips, so if you are wondering why Sun still supports the older Cheetah chips, it is so customers who are on older Solaris 7 and Solaris 8 releases can still buy iron if they can't or won't upgrade their operating systems because of application software issues. Elwell says that a large portion of the Sun Fire installed base is still using the 1.5 GHz Panthers, and it expects that these customers will be the ones who want the faster Panthers.


Sun Cranks UltraSparc-IV+ Clocks, Tweaks Sun Fire Servers

Sun Puts UltraSparc-IV+ Chips in Its Big Boxes

UltraSparc-IV+ Chips Give Sun's Midrange Servers Twice the Oomph

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik,
Shannon O'Donnell, Timothy Prickett Morgan
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