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Is OpenSparc all about Linux?John Abbott, April 3, 2006 @ 6:26 pm ET
I admit to being impressed by the boldness of Sun’s ‘Niagara’ UltraSparc T1 processor strategy when the chip was launched at the end of last year – eight cores, 32 threads and its emphasis on lower power consumption seemed to put it ahead of the pack. But I was surprised and a bit uncertain about Sun’s decision to turn the design specs of the chip over to the open source community as OpenSparc. What would they want with it, and what would they do with it?
Things are only a little bit clearer now that Sun has followed up on its promise, with the release of the Verilog designs for Niagara along with the programming interfaces to its HyperVisor layer microcode, the latter particularly important for those porting new operating systems to the chip. Competitor Hewlett-Packard, stung no doubt by Scott McNealy’s famous two garbage trucks quip, is putting it about that the entire thing is really about getting Linux onto Sparc – a fruitless task it points out, since 99.5% of current Linux shipments run on x86 architectures.
A quick look at the first companies to publicly show an interest in OpenSparc suggests that the embedded sector is where much of the action will be. Start-up Simply RISC, for instance, plans a cut-down version of Niagara for PDAs, desktop boxes, digital cameras and possibly routers. TTM Inc (it stands for Time To Market) provides ASIC design services. And research efforts such as RAMP and MASC are looking to synthesize the Niagara architecture on top of new-generation of field programmable gate array chips.
This is all very interesting, but doesn’t at first indicate that OpenSparc will represent a massive additional business beyond Sun’s own sales of the chip within its own servers. True, Sun created a good ecosystem based on embedded Sparc during the 1990s but that’s faded somewhat in recent years. Current Linux distributions don’t perform well in multithreaded environments and unless Red Hat and Novell begin showing more enthusiasm about Niagara than they currently seem to be, then Solaris is likely to remain the primary enterprise operating system for the new chip, tending to limit sales to Sun’s current user base.
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