UltraSparc-IV+ Chips Give Sun's Midrange Servers Twice the Oomph
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Sun Microsystems is continuing the roll-out of new processor technology it has been promising for more than a year for customers who use its Sparc-based servers. This week, Sun unveiled its "Panther" UltraSparc-IV+ processors, which are used in the "Amazon+" server frames. The announcement follows last week's launch of its Sun Fire "Galaxy" Opteron-based servers.
Sun has been specific about the fact that the Panther UltraSparc-IV+ chips were going to be delivered sometime before the end of the year, and it has also had a stated goal of delivering twice as much performance as the current "Jaguar" UltraSparc-IV processors. Announced in February 2004, the Jaguar chips were Sun's first-dual core Sparc chips, and were essentially two UltraSparc-III processors implemented on a single die; they required new servers, which were code-named "Amazon," but the a number of the Amazon frames were also able to support so-called "uniboard" cell boards that were designed for the "Serengeti" UltraSparc-III server family. Sun is continuing with this investment protection strategy as it rolls out its next generation of servers, which will also allow a mix of UltraSparc-III, UltraSparc-IV, and UltraSparc-IV+ uniboards to coexist in the same frames. These boards can run at full speed, but they have to be installed in their own dynamic system domains.
Sun was careful to never set a target clock speed for the Panther chips, even as it did promise to double the performance of the Sun Fire line compared to the Jaguar versions of the Amazon servers. The word on the street was that the the Panthers would come out at 1.6 GHz and then possibly ramp up to 1.8 GHz or so. According to Phil Dunn, group marketing manager for Sun's Scalable Systems Group--the unit responsible for making and selling Sparc-based servers at Sun--the Panthers will be available starting at 1.5 GHz, a bit lower than expected, and will ramp up to 1.8 GHz some time during the first half of 2006.
The clock speed is not really the issue; the fact that Sun has doubled the performance of its Sparc processors is what is really important, and should go a long way towards closing a gaping performance gap that has separated Sun from IBM's Power processors and Intel's Itanium processors. If Sun has been hurt in any way, it is that the Panthers are a bit later than Sun had hoped to bring them to market. Back in 2004, when the Jaguars were announced, the Panthers were expected in the first half of 2005, then it slipped to mid-2005, and here were are in the late summer of 2005and they are finally being delivered. This is, however, a bit earlier than the estimates from earlier this year, which pegged the Panthers for some time in the fourth quarter.
For now, the Panther chips are only available in Sun's midrange machines, and according to Dunn, Sun has been quietly shipping the Panthers to selected customers since August. Specifically, the Panthers are available in the Sun Fire V490 (four socket) and V890 (eight-socket) midrange boxes, which are the so-called "value" editions of Sun's machines, which do not support dynamic domains and which use two-socket uniboards. The Panthers are also available in machines that use the four-socket cell boards, which includes the E2900 (12-socket), E4900(24-socket), and E6900(24-socket with more peripheral expansion). There are no smaller machines that will get the Panther chips because Sun discontinued the V280 rack-mounted server years ago and did not make a V290 when it debuted the Amazon line. But the Panther chip will eventually make it into the 36-socket E20000 and 72-socket E25000 machines. Exactly when, Dunn would not say. Probably before the end of the year, and almost certainly at the next Sun quarterly announcement.
Sun's performance gains with the Panther chips are impressive, and moving to a 90 nanometer copper/low-k/strained silicon process has allowed Sun to cram more transistors on the chip. Just shrinking from 130 nanometers to 90 nanometers gave Sun enough room to add 200 million transistors to the chip, says Dunn, which allowed the company to bring 2 MB of L2 cache memory onto the chip - the first time Sun has had L2 cache on chip. (L2 caches have until this point been within the chip package, but not on the Sparc chip itself.) The Panther chips also have 32 MB of L3 cache per chip, the first L3 cache Sun has ever delivered. These caches are a big factor in the performance gains Sun is delivering in the jump from the Jaguars to the Panthers. But Dunn says that the pipeline for the Sparc cores has been tweaked to better interface with this new cache architecture and to deliver better performance on multithreaded workloads, too.
Significantly, the dual-core 1.5 GHz Panther chip offers about five times the performance as the original 900 MHz single-core "Cheetah" UltraSparc-III processors that came to market in 2001. Those chips dissipated about 57 watts of power as the clock speed for the Cheetahs was cranked up to 1.3 GHz; moving to dual-core with the Jaguars jumped the heat up to 90 watts. But in moving to the Panthers, even with boosting the clock speed to 1.5 GHz and adding on-chip L2 cache and in-package L3 cache, Sun has been able to keep the Panthers in the 90-watt thermal envelope. This is a significant feat, especially considering that Sun's competitors are cranking out a lot more heat in the current designs.
Perhaps even more shocking than the performance gains is the fact that Sun is not going to try to charge a premium for the Panther chips. The Panther versions of the Sun Fire boxes have the same list price as the Jaguar versions, which means the price/performance for these Sun Fires just doubled for many workloads. This also means that customers who were thinking of buying a current E20000 or E25000 server just decided to hold off until these machines get the Panthers. Sun had charged a 15 to 30 percent premium for dual-core Jaguar chips compared to single-core Cheetah chips in 2004. This time around, with a need to protect its installed base from aggressive incursions by other Unix vendors and Lintel suppliers, Sun has seen the wisdom of giving its customers a break and just being generous with the price/performance.
As for future Panther chips, Sun has said that it would deliver two kickers spaced about nine months apart after the initial Panthers, and with this week's announcement, we now know that the first kicker will be a 1.8 GHz chip. The final kicker, due around the end of 2006 or in early 2007, will probably run at around 2 GHz.
The new Panther chips are available immediately worldwide on these midrange Sun Fire boxes. They ship with Solaris 10, but Solaris 9 is supported on them. Solaris 8 is not supported on the Panther chips, since it does not have the latest multithreading tweaks in it to work with the new Panther UltraSparc-IV+ pipeline. Customers who need to run Solaris 8 for some of their workloads can, of course, move their UltraSparc-III or UltraSparc-IV uniboards into their new servers. Solaris 8 is supported on these uniboards.
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