Volume 3, Number 34 -- September 14, 2006

Sun Beefs Up UltraSparc-IIIi Servers, Kills UltraSparc-IIIi+

Published: September 14, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Server maker Sun Microsystems has been saying for a few years now that it would continue to do Sparc processor development on three fronts, with three different kinds of products aimed at different parts of the workstation and server markets. Sometime late last year, Sun made the decision to kill off the "Serrano" UltraSparc-IIIi+ processor. However, this week, the servers that would have used these chips will be announced with the current "Jalapeno" UltraSparc-IIIi processors.

Historically, the Sparc chips with the lower-case "i" designation have been created by Sun to go into relatively modestly powered (in terms of performance) workstations and entry infrastructure servers where price and software compatibility with the Sparc chip are bigger factors than raw performance. For performance workloads, Sun has sold its regular processors--the UltraSparc-II, UltraSparc-III, and UltraSparc-IV line. As Sun went onto the rocks after the dot-com bubble burst five years ago, the company rethought its processor and server designs and came up with the idea of creating a different kind of processor, one with many cores, even more threads, and a much more intense focus on low electricity usage and heat dissipation. The first product to come out of those efforts is the "Niagara" Sparc T1 chip, which has eight four-threaded Sparc cores on a single chip and which can do as much or more work as a two-socket server based on the UltraSparc-IIIi processor.

The UltraSparc-IIIi chip is a streamlined version of the "Cheetah" UltraSparc-III chip that gave Sun so much trouble a-birthing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The UltraSparc-III was delayed a number of times, giving RISC/Unix rivals a lot of performance advantage in a market that very suddenly went south. The Jalapeno chip, which came to market in April 2003, runs at 1 GHz or 1.2 GHz, and is made using a 130 nanometer process by Sun's chip fab partner, Texas Instruments. It has 1 MB of on-chip L2 cache, and an integrated memory controller. Sun eventually ramped up the clock speeds to 1.3 GHz by the end of 2003, and added 1.6 GHz versions by the end of 2004.

The company then promised an upgrade to the UltraSparc-IIIi+, known by the code-name Serrano, chip by the middle of 2005, complete with new systems. The Serrano chip was to have 4 MB of L2 cache on the chip and also have a clock speed in the range of 2 GHz, both of which were enabled by the move to a 90 nanometer process and which enabled a lot more performance. Presumably, the kicker chip was also to include support for DDR2 main memory, too. The Serrano chip did not make it out the door in 2005, and it is now apparent that it never will make it out the door.

According to Warren Mootrey, product line manager for the Niagara products at Sun, the company's reasoning was simple. "We want to focus our efforts on Niagara-II," he simply said. Sun and TI have limited resources, and they are being deployed for the kicker to the original Niagara processors.

Based on these facts, you might be wondering why Sun is not just peddling the Niagara-based T1000 and T2000 servers extra hard and simply telling customers that it is sun-setting the UltraSparc-IIIi products. At some point, vendors have products engineered and manufactured, and they have customers who are interested in them, so they bring them to market even if there is some overlap. So it is with four new entry Sun Fire V-class servers, which did not get the faster Serrano chip, but which can still be used with the current Jalapeno chip.

Mootrey did say that Sun had expected some cannibalization between the Jalapeno and Niagara systems this year, but so far this has not happened. Which is another reason to bring the improved Sun Fire boxes to market, even if it is with the existing Jalapeno processors. Sun can't afford to miss a sale. Not all workloads or budgets fit Niagara systems.

In any event, there are four new Jalapeno boxes. They have been improved with redundant power (in some cases), RAID disk controllers, and PCI-X and PCI-Express peripherals, which can deliver from four to eight times the bandwidth as the prior boxes.

The Sun Fire V125 comes in a 1U form factor rack-mounted chassis, and has a single UltraSparc-IIIi processor running at 1.5 GHz. It can have from 512 MB to 8 GB of DDR1 main memory, and has two hot swap SCSI disks (either 73 GB or 146 GB). The machine also has one PCI slot, one power supply, and an optional encryption card that plugs directly into the motherboard. It also has two Gigabit Ethernet ports. A base machine with Solaris installed costs $2,195.

The V215 is a two-socket server--also in a 1U chassis--that uses the 1.5 GHz UltraSparc-IIIi processor. It supports from 1 GB to 16 GB of main memory. It has room for two hot-plug disks, and comes with four Gigabit Ethernet ports. It has two PCI slots--one PCI-X and one PCI-Express--and redundant power supplies. With a single 1.5 GHz processor, 1 GB of memory, and one 73 GB disk, the V215 costs $4,045. Adding a second processor, 1 GB more of memory, and a second disk boosts the price to $6,845.

The V245 is a rack-mounted box that has slightly more peripheral expansion than the V215. The V245 is a two-socket box and it uses the same 1.5 GHz UltraSparc-IIIi processor. And it has from 1 GB to 16 GB of main memory and four Gigabit Ethernet ports, too. But it has two PCI-X slots and two PCI-Express slots and room for four 2.5-inch SAS disk drives, which come in 73 GB capacities from Sun. A base V245 with a single processor, 1 GB of memory, and a single drive costs $4,595. Adding the second processor, another 1 GB of memory, and another disk makes it $8,145, and a heavily loaded machine with four disks and 8 GB of memory costs $12,195. (This seems like a lot of dough for a modestly powered machine.)

The V445 is a four-way version of the Jalapeno boxes, and it comes in a 4U rack-mounted chassis. It uses a slightly faster 1.6 GHz processor. The V445 supports up to 32 GB of memory, and it has room for eight hot-plug 2.5-inch SAS drives. The system also has four Gigabit Ethernet ports, four PCI-X slots, four PCI-Express slots, and four power supplies. A base V445 with two 1.6 GHz UltraSparc-IIIi processors, 4 GB of memory, two 73 GB drives costs $15,995. It costs $25,995 to get a machine with four processors, 8 GB of memory, and two disks.

All of the machines come with Solaris 10 pre-installed. Customers have to use the Solaris 10 6/06 Update on the boxes. If you want to use Solaris 9, you can do that so long as you use the Solaris 9 09/05 Update or later.


Sun Firms Up Its Sparc Chip Plans

Sun Boosts Entry Servers, Sits Tight with UltraSparc-IV, Opteron Boxes

UltraSparc-IV+, UltraSparc-IIIi+ Coming in Mid-2005

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik,
Shannon O'Donnell, Timothy Prickett Morgan
Publisher and Advertising Director: Jenny Thomas
Advertising Sales Representative: Kim Reed
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