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Volume 4, Number 37 -- October 11, 2007

Niagara-2 Chips Double Entry Sparc Server Performance

Published: October 11, 2007

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

The entry Sparc server lines from Sun Microsystems and Fujitsu-Siemens got an upgrade this week as the two companies began selling new servers based on Sun's "Niagara-2" Sparc T2 multicore processor. The Sparc T2 is a considerable upgrade to the first-generation T1 chips, and even though it runs a little hotter, the roughly doubling of performance in the new Niagara servers more than makes up for the extra heat, yielding substantial improvements in performance per watt.

The new Sparc Enterprise T5120 and T5220 servers come in rack-mounted chasses that are similar to those that the new Intel-based "Galaxy" servers announced a few weeks ago employ. The new 1U chassis design packs up to eight SATA or SAS disk drives into the front of a 1U server unit in a two-socket box with just enough room left over for a DVD/CD drive. The 2U box, which is used for the four-socket Xeon machine, has a 1U space on top that is used to bring air into the unit to cool it. The Sparc T2 machines announced this week fit into the same cases and have some commonality beyond this in terms of peripheral support, service processors, and so on. This helps Sun pump up volumes while offering distinct machines, and it is the only practical way that Sun can afford to address its two distinct sets of server customers--those who want X64 machines and those that need Sparc machines.

The Sparc T2 chip has eight cores, each with eight threads and each with a floating point unit. (The Sparc T1 chips have a single floating point unit that was shared by the entire chip, and only four threads per core.) The Niagara-2 has 4 MB of L2 cache, one x8 PCI-Express slot, two 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports (which are a variant of the "Project Neptune" 10 GE chip that Sun has designed) on the chip, and 8 FB-DIMM memory slots are driven by an on-chip memory controller, too. The Niagara-2 chip has 500 million transistors and a 342 square millimeter die size; it is implemented in an 11-layer, 65 nanometer process from Texas Instruments. The Sparc T1 chip had 1,111 pins and its socket was considerably larger than the T2 chip, which has only 720 pins. Of those 720 pins on the T2 chip, 200 are used for testing the chip, so you can see that Sun's new serial I/O design with the T2 chip is a lot more streamlined than the hybrid serial and parallel links used in the T1 chip. This gives the T2 chip higher bandwidth between components, and it also lays the groundwork for the multi-socket "Victoria Falls" Sparc T3 kickers--if they are indeed called the T3 instead of the T2+--which are due in systems from Sun and Fujitsu-Siemens sometime in the first half of 2008. The Sparc T2 can only be used in single-socket servers, just like the Sparc T1 chip, but with the Victoria Falls chips, Sun could gang up two or four of these into a single system image and build a very powerful midrange box.

The first new T2 server is the T5120, and rather than give customers all eight drives in the 1U box, Sun is cutting back the number of drives two four. This could be for thermal reasons, or Sun could be trying to force an upgrade to the more expensive 2U box, which is called the T5220. From the outside, the T5220 looks exactly like the 2U Intel-based server, and it is pretty obvious that when Sun puts out machines based on Advanced Micro Devices' "Barcelona" quad-core Opterons, these machines will use the same chasses, too.

As it did for the original Niagara T1 servers, Sun is selling systems with T2 chips that have a varying number of cores activated at multiple clock speeds. Customers can buy 1.2 GHz T2 chips with four, six, or eight cores activated or 1.4 GHz chips with eight cores activated. These cores and clock speeds are set statically, not dynamically, so they cannot be changed. However, Mat Keep, director of product management for the Niagara server line at Sun, says that future Niagara machines based on the Victoria Falls chips will have dynamic core activation, much as high-end RISC/Unix and proprietary servers have today.

The T5120 only supports SAS drives--SATA is not an option--and only in 73 GB or 146 GB capacities. The server has 16 FB-DIMM main memory slots, providing a maximum of 16 GB, 32 GB, or 64 GB of main memory using 1 GB, 2 GB, or 4 GB DIMMs. The server has four Gigabit Ethernet ports and two optional 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports. (Just because they are embedded on the T2 chip doesn't mean Sun can't charge extra for access to them.) The server has three PCI-Express slots, one x8 and two x4 slots. The base T5120 server comes with four 1.2 GHz cores activated, 4 GB of memory, and two 146 GB disk drives for $13,995. A larger configuration with eight 1.2 GHz cores, 16 GB of memory, and those two disks costs $24,995. A heavier configuration with eight 1.2 GHz cores, 32 GB of memory, and two disks costs $30,995. Sun did not provide pricing on the 1.4 GHz eight-core model, which might lead some to suspect that yields are still a bit low on this part. Sun is also not announcing specific estimated ship dates for the T5120 machine on its store, either, which is typical of new boxes.

The Sparc Enterprise T5220 uses the same processor speeds and offers the same main memory features, but throws in an extra PCI-Express x8 slot, four more disk drives, and another 1U of space, which is most open for air flow. A base T5220 configuration with a four-core 1.2 GHz T2 chip, 4 GB of memory, and two 146 GB disks costs $14,995. A machine with eight 1.2 GHz cores, 32 GB of main memory, and two 146 GB SAS drives costs $31,995. With 64 GB of main memory and the same CPU and disk configuration, the T5220 costs a stunning $58,995--and that is only because 4 GB DIMMs are wicked expensive.

In addition to these two rack-mounted T2 servers, Sun is also announcing a revamped Niagara blade server for its Sun Blade 6000 chassis. The Sun Blade T6320 blade is similar to the T5120, but it is in a different shape. It uses T2 chips with either six or eight cores activated, has room for four SAS disks, and offers up to 64 GB of main memory. The pricing information for the T6320 blade was not in the Sun online store yet, but Sun says the entry configuration of this blade will cost $9,995.

The T2 processor runs at around 95 watts, according to Keep, and can rev as high as 123 watts for the 1.4 GHz, eight-core version running full tilt boogie. The top-end T1 part ran at around 79 watts at 1.4 GHz, and had a nominal thermal design point of 72 watts.

On Web infrastructure benchmarks, the T5220 is able to handle about 2.5 times as many network connections as the T2000 server it replaces in the Sun lineup, and uses one third as many network ports to accomplish this task. On floating point workloads, Sun is seeing as much as a factor of 35 times improvement in performance, with a factor of eight owing to the move from one to eight floating point units and the inclusion of some native floating point instructions that were implemented in software on the T1 that are now implemented in hardware supplying a lot of the remaining boost in number-crunching performance. The increased memory and I/O bandwidth of the T2-based machines is also boosting floating point performance as well, and that might mean Sun might see a little bit more action with the Niagara line in the life sciences and in financial services. Some big financial institutions are examining T2 machines for Monte Carlo and other risk analysis simulations right now, in fact.

The new Sparc T2-based machines come preloaded with Solaris 10 at the 8/07 update level as well as the Sun Studio 12 compiler, add-ons for programming the Niagara machines, and a 90-day evaluation version of the Java Enterprise System middleware stack. Ubuntu 7.10 Linux, which is in beta, has also been certified on the box. The T1 servers ran earlier releases of Ubuntu, and Solaris and Ubuntu can be mixed inside Sun's Logical Domain (LDom) partitions on these machines.


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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Niagara-2 Chips Double Entry Sparc Server Performance

Akamai Debuts Service to Speed Any IP-Based Application

IBM Tweaks BladeCenter S for the Office, Preps Power6 Blades

Growing Businesses, Upgrades Drive IT Hiring in Q4

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