Sun UltraSPARC In 1995, eight years after the first SPARC Station was introduced, Sun went 64-bit with the debut of its UltraSPARC I RISC processor; the first model ran at 143MHz and had 128-bit datapaths. The following year, the UltraSPARC I became the first 64-bit CPU to incorporate multimedia extensions to handle complex 2D/3D graphics. In 1997, the UltraSPARC II was released at 250MHz, while the UltraSPARC III (with new 256-bit datapaths) is expected to debut any time now at 600MHz.
UltraSPARCs are fabbed by Texas Instruments, and Sun claims this fabless business model gives them better risk management by not overcapitalising or being vulnerable to fluctuations in volume and demand. The UltraSPARC II is produced using a 0.25-micron process, while the UltraSPARC III will employ a 0.18-micron process. Texas Instruments has already announced that it can deliver a 0.07-micron process in the future, which Sun intends to employ in its gigahertz-class UltraSPARC processors. The UltraSPARC IV will be Suns first 1GHz processor, and is roadmapped for the end of this year. Sun claims that its UltraSPARC V with 1.5GHz performance will make an appearance in early 2002.
So Sun has a clear roadmap for its 64-bit UltraSPARC processor family. Indeed, the company has an interesting strategy for risk management, where it limits the improvements to its processors to one at a time. Sun implements new architectural pipelines on the odd-numbered generations (UltraSPARC I, III and V), while the actual manufacturing process technology is updated on even-numbered generations (UltraSPARC II, IV and so on).
Sun reckons its forthcoming UltraSPARC III processor will be way ahead of its competitors, and that since binary application code written for the UltraSPARC II will run unmodified on the UltraSPARC III, the transition to this new platform will be very smooth. The company also claims that the UltraSPARC III will scale up to 1,000 processors and deliver full binary compatibility before Itanium arrives; current UltraSPARC II SMP servers scale to 64 processors.
Suns biggest argument against Itanium is that its been supplying 64-bit solutions for five years and has long ironed out its bugs. While Itanium may arrive mid-way through the year, the porting and testing of apps to enterprise satisfaction could take longer. Sun also believes that its UltraSPARC platform scales better
Its crucial to remember that Sun also produces Solaris (which has been true 64-bit for 18 months), so its expert at getting entire systems stable and operational. Solaris 8 was released as we went to press and is gearing up for an epic battle with Windows 2000. Over 12,000 Solaris-based apps are available, and Sun believes that its been tuning key apps for five years to ensure they run smoothly. It also claims that its Visual Instruction Set can be used to speed up networking, I/O and memory management by optimising the passing of data blocks through protocol stacks with special instructions.
PowerPCs went 64-bit in 1998 with the codename Power3, which covers the PowerPC 604e and PowerPC RS64 processors. Each share many qualities, but are modified depending on the product in which theyre used. IBM recently announced the Power4 platform, which will take the PowerPC to 1GHz at the end of this year. IBM has a well-defined roadmap and committed investment in its PowerPC platform and believes it offers better scalability and higher performance with a smaller number of chips than Itanium. The company also claims the PowerPC is technologically ahead of Intels roadmap, but intends to produce systems based on Itanium alongside its PowerPCs, depending on customers requirements.
PowerPC systems run AIX (IBMs own Unix), OS400 and a variety of Linux flavours. IBM claims AIX is a particularly industrial and scalable OS. Its working with SCO and Intel to produce the next version of AIX, codenamed Monterey (see Software support). Although developed for IA-64, Monterey (or AIX 5 as it will probably be known), will offer a robust unified Unix platform for IA-32, IA-64 and PowerPC platforms, which is claimed to be more robust than Solaris.
IBMs RS/6000 systems also offer a High Availability Cluster Server solution, which allows two individual servers (or nodes) to be linked. This HACMP software allows multiple RS/6000 systems to be clustered, increasing application availability. IBMs High Availability Geographic Cluster solution (HAGEO) provides resources such as data redundancy using systems located at completely different sites - great for disaster recovery.
In 1997, IBM introduced a copper in silicon process, which allows smaller and more powerful CPUs to be made compared to the earlier aluminium process. The company claims these chips can be up to 30 per cent smaller, yet boast 20-25 per cent better performance. The first system to see the benefit of this new process is its high-end S80 RS/6000 server, which can house six, 12, 18 or 24 64-bit PowerPC RS64-II CPUs, each running at 450MHz.
While 24 CPUs doesnt sound as impressive as the maximum 64 CPUs in a Sun UltraSPARC II system, IBM claims that benchmarks under Baan, SAP and others show that its S80 with 24 CPUs outperforms Suns Enterprise 10000 with 64 CPUs and at 60 per cent lower cost.
Compaqs Alpha While Suns UltraSPARC and IBMs PowerPC processors went 64-bit in 1995 and 1998 respectively, Digitals Alpha CPU was 64-bit from day one, and that was in 1992. The Alpha was always an impressive CPU, launched at 200MHz, when the MIPS 64-bit R4000 ran at 100MHz, and Intels top of the range 32-bit 386 idled at a mere 25MHz.
Today the Alpha processor belongs to Compaq, and in an array of deals and cross-licensing is actually fabbed by Samsung, Intel, AMD and IBM. Like the PowerPC, support from Microsoft disappeared some time ago, and the hopeful-looking beta of Windows 2000 for Alpha was used only as a 64-bit development platform until Itanium became more readily available. OS wise, the Alpha runs OpenVMS and Tru64, which Compaq claims is the most NT-friendly Unix in the market. Linux has supported Alpha since 1995, longer than any Intel platform, and the Alpha-Linux port is a proper 64-bit OS.
Compaq claims the Alpha runs Oracle, Baan, PeopleSoft and other enterprise apps faster than its competitors, but doesnt put forward as compelling arguments as Sun and IBM for enterprise customers. While theres no question to its scalability and clustering capabilities, it seems the Alpha is destined to be the choice for huge number-crunching scientific and entertainment apps.
AMDs Sledgehammer At the Microprocessor Forum on 5 October 1999, AMD announced details of its forthcoming 64-bit processor. This eighth-generation AMD CPU, codenamed Sledgehammer, is due for launch in 2001.
AMD plans to extend Intels original x86 instruction set to include a 64-bit mode. This is said to maintain compatibility with existing 32-bit apps while boasting the additional performance benefits of a 64-bit platform. Developers have also commented that it could offer fast compiler retargetting and an easy kernel port. Sledgehammer will also employ AMDs future system bus, named Lightni