PALO ALTO, Calif. -- With this week's launch of the UltraSparc III architecture, Sun Microsystems Inc. here is aiming to accelerate its 64-bit processor roadmap to stay well ahead of Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., which are pushing into the 64-bit arena with their own PC-compatible MPUs.
"Every six months or so we plan some type of upgrade to the product line of the UltraSparc III," promised Ron Melanson, senior director of engineering for Sparc processors at Sun.
The workstation and server company introduced the UltraSparc III processor with initial speeds of 600 and 750 MHz on Wednesday. Sun said it is preparing to ship systems with 900-MHz central processors, based on copper-chip technology, in January (see Sept. 27 story).
The UltraSparc III is Sun's second-generation 64-bit RISC architecture and the first major change to the company's 64-bit processor core since the introduction of the UltraSparc II nearly five years ago. The UltraSparc III makes major changes to the architecture's pipeline structure. It adds extensive on-chip support for multiprocessing, new cache protocols, and interfaces to memory as well as system functions. One third of the new 64-bit RISC chip is dedicated to system and memory interfaces, cache coherency functions, and glue logic for multiprocessing.
Sun Microsystems has spent months qualifying and testing out the new architecture to make sure it is fully compatible with existing 64-bit UltraSparc II software, said Fadi Azhari, group marketing manager for Sparc processors. And the Palo Alto company figures its five-year experience in 64-bit processors will give it an edge over Intel and AMD, which must address the incompatibilities of 32-bit x86-compatible chips and new 64-bit CPUs, he added.
Moving ahead, Sun is planning to accelerate the pace of performance upgrades to 64-bit processors. A 1.5-GHz version of the UltraSparc III is expected to be out in 2001.
"In 2002, we will introduce the UltraSparc IV, which will entail some architectural changes to the existing pipeline, but predominately it will be the same pipeline structure," Melanson explained. Sun's third-generation 64-bit RISC processor--designated UltraSparc V--will be introduced in 2003. That processor will introduce major changes to the pipeline architecture, Melanson said.
UltraSparc III--like previous generations of the Sparc RISC chips--is being fabricated by Tedxas Instruments Inc., which is Sun's foundry for leading-edge CPUs. The 600- and 750-MHz UltraSparc III chips are being made with a 0.15-micron, aluminum-interconnect process. The 900-MHz UltraSparc III is the first processor to use TI's 0.15-micron copper-interconnect process.
The UltraSparc IV processor will use TI's 0.10-micron copper process in 2002, and the UltraSparc V is now slated to be produced with 0.07-micron technology by the Dallas chip maker.
Sun is looking at all chip-technology options for future generations of UltraSparc central processors, including the use of silicon-on-insulator wafers, said Melanson. "The jury is still out on SOI, but we are very seriously evaluating the technology for the future," said the senior engineering director at Sun. Several other processor makers--in particular IBM Corp.--have advocated the use of SOI to enhance the performance of next-generation RISC chips.