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Power usage, prices, and conclusion

Unfortunately, we have little choice but to be disappointed in the UltraSparc T1's performance: even the perfectly scaling PostgreSQL allows the machine to be very convincingly overtaken by the 'average' Opteron server, costing just below half its price. It can only be hoped that the T2000 manages better in other situations, with performance gains that are large enough to justify the difference in price., since otherwise the radically designed chip is in danger of being trampled by competitors that with a more gradual and conservative approach to the switch to multicore architecture. It has to be said though that a plus of the T2000 is that it is very energy efficient: full loading only pulls 322W out of the mains, while the Opteron needs about 50% more, doing the task. When we look at the performance per Watt in PostgreSQL, we measure peaks of 1,17 requests per second per Watt for the Opteron, and 1,34 requests per second per Watt for the T2000; which translates to an advantage of about 15% for the Niagara. Sun also wants to take the server's height into consideration in its own SwaP measure, but since both of them were 2U, this does not change the picture.

Energy consumption
Sun X4200 (4 cores, 2,4GHz) - load 341
Sun X4200 (4 cores, 2,4GHz) - idle 274
Sun T2000 (8 cores, 1GHz) - load 232
Sun T2000 (8 cores, 1GHz) - idle 223
Prices in euros (source:, 16-7)
X4200 (4-core, 2,4GHz, 8GB) 6800
T2000 (4-core, 1GHz, 8GB) 8300
T2000 (6-core, 1GHz, 8GB) 10900
T2000 (8-core, 1GHz, 8GB) 13400

It is important to realize that we have tested only one application: the database. That the T2000 is not an ideal choice for that, does not mean that the machine can be dismissed: it may well do a good job as a web server. Sun did break several records with the T2000, and so applications can be conceived for which it is better suited. The most important conclusion to be drawn is that purchasers of this server need to be very careful what they want to use it for, since in case the intended application happens to be unsuitable, buying a UltraSparc T1 can be an expensive mistake. Such risks are considerably smaller for regular Opterons or Xeons. Fortunately, Sun understands this only too well, and hence the company is very helpful to people wishing to give the T2000 a try.

* The future

The UltraSparc T1 is only the first in a new line of Sun processors, and if the company's roadmap is to be believed, a Niagara II baked using a 65nm process will appear next year. Rumour has it that this chip will be able to handle twice as many threads, clock somewhat higher (a maximum of 1,4GHz) and have its own FPU for every core instead of sharing them. Moreover, instead of direct DDR2 support, the talk is that there will be a switch to FB-DIMM. The year 2008 would see the appearance of Rock, which is supposed to offer improved singlethread performance. According to the rumours, Sun has invented a very interesting way to handle multithreading flexibly. In principle, sixteen 'cores' are meant to get to work on two threads, but the cache is to be shared by groups of four: every quarter of the processor would get 64 KB L1 and 2MB of L2. It is said that the cores do not just share their caches, but also unused computing power. This would be like having four 'super cores' that each handle eight threads.

Even though Sun has innovative ideas for a future processor, it did take a risk by choosing this path: the chip really isn't quite as versatile as the x86 competition, and cannot participate either in the higher market segments that are the domain of the Power and Itanium processors. Having said that, the design has some unique benefits, which will need to translate into high sales figures to compensate the rest. At the moment, the UltraSparc IV+ is guarding the fortress, but the cancellation of its proposed successor means that Niagara will have to make it on its own. So far, sales figures have not been spectacular: in a recent presentation accompanying financial results, Sun indicated that it had sold slightly more servers, but a much sharper rise of Opteron sales reveals that Sparc sales are still on the way down. At the moment, Niagara generates returns of 100 million dollars per quarter, on a total of 1.3 billion in the area of servers.

 Sun's total sales vs. its x86 sales

Sun will have to dedicate a great deal of attention to the Niagara design in order to make it more versatile, but as of late it appears to be just cutting costs in its processor department. The cancellation of the UltraSparc V meant the loss of five hundred jobs; another sixty defected to AMD, and recently a further two hundred jobs were cut, among them people who were working on the Rock coprocessors. After the resignation of Scott McNealy, the new CEO Jonathan Schwarz announced another four to five thousand jobs are to go at Sun. It is unclear to what extent this will concern the chip department. Disaster will probably not hit the company though, in case it does not score with Niagara and its successors: it struck a deal with Fujitsu last year for the sale of servers with the Sparc64 processor. The x86 might also take a share of the burden: Transitive (the company that makes the PowerPC emulator that Apple uses for its Intel Macs) recently released software for running Sparc applications.

We hope that Niagara manages to grab a sufficient share of the market to justify further development of the processor. Diversity in the market is good for consumers, and Sun could become one of the few companies to battle the dominance of the x86-design. Having said that, we do wonder to what extent Sun is prepared to put up a fight: will it do whatever it takes to make the chip a success, or will the concept fall prey to cost cutting if it does not make money quickly enough? According to Sun itself the company is determined to see it through: the roadmap continues beyond 2010.

Scott McNealy with UST1 Niagara

* Acknowledgements would like to thank the following people: Bart Muyzer and Hans Nijbacker (Sun Netherlands) for their cooperation with this article and their efforts to improve the benchmark results; Jochem van Dieten (database consultant and regular visitor of our forum) for his help with PostgreSQL; ACM and moto-moi for running the tests and for their help processing and interpreting the results; and Mick de Neeve for the English translation.

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