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The interconnect's the thing

New Sun chief technical officer says bus bandwidth increases at 100 percent per year

By Mark Cappel

May  1996
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In September 1991, Sun introduced the 600MP servers, and said it was getting serious about rightsizing the enterprise. In November 1992, Sun revealed the SPARCcenter 2000, and said it was really getting serious about commercial computing, so much so that it was forming a special support unit to keep the owners of the 20-CPU, refrigerator-sized computers happy.

In April, Sun repeated its familiar server refrain, and said it was so totally serious about the commercial server market it was naming its new, competitive, UltraSPARC-based offerings the "Ultra Enterprise" line. Like before, Sun promises to throw more bodies into its support pool, and hire sales reps familiar with the schmoozing expectations of the commercial clientele.

[SyMON screen]

So the new Ultra Enterprise servers are more of what we saw in 1991 and 1992, right? Yes, and no. Yes in that these are faster SPARC computers. The software you ran on your 600MP in 1991 should run just fine on today's Ultra Enterprise 6000, only about 50 times faster. And no, in that the new computers offer innovative remote administration, a clever modular design, and a list of Web- and Java-crazed customers thirsting to hear Sun's Inter- and Intranet sales pitch.

The heart of Sun's latest computers may be the competitive UltraSPARC chip, but the soul of Sun's new servers is a mundane-sounding piece of technology called a bus. SunWorld Online editor Mark Cappel talked to Greg Papadopoulos, Sun Microsystems' chief technology officer, about the Sun's newest computers, and how their features may endear them to commercial customers.

The logical glue holding the UltraSPARC to the rest of the computer is the UltraSPARC Port Architecture (UPA). Sun's engineers took the "UPA switch and spread it out across a large system and now connect up to 30 processors in it, and lots of I/O ports," Papadopoulos said.

Sun claims the spread UPA, called the Gigaplane, offers a peak throughput of "2.6 gigabytes per second in the first version of the product, which offers a processor/memory/I/O bandwidth... a factor of five higher than the (SPARCcenter) 2000."


Papadopoulos said, "The two really big additions we've made, aside from all the throughput that's going on -- it's very aggressive latency."

Aside from high performance, the Gigaplane supports the "hot plug-in" of I/O and CPU cards, though does not support "hot removal" of these cards. The bus used in the SPARCserver 1000 and SPARCcenter 2000 allowed no such component insertion or removal tomfoolery with that bus, which is called the XDBus.

Papadopoulos declined to reveal what future busses Sun had in the works, but allowed, "We certainly have a pathway to the future. You've got to keep the systems in balance over time." He said while CPUs gain headlines with a doubling in performance every 18 months, "the compound annual growth rate of that delivered bandwidth is 100 percent per year."

Sun developed and holds all of the patents for the Gigaplane, and worked with Mitsubishi to supply the responsible ASICs. "It's the same part of Mitsubishi that did the 3D-RAM (found in the UltraSPARC desktop computers) with us. They've been a very important partner to the success of this," Papadopoulos said.

SyMON says
Since the first Unix computer, the operating system and hardware assumed and required the system administrator to be near the machine when conducting significant sysadmin functions, such as power-up and monitoring console messages. (While clever, home-brewed remote console monitors only solve part of the problem.)

Solstice SyMON monitors an UltraSPARC server, or collection of servers, and alerts system administrators of failed parts and predicts failures. It functions like a SNMP network management console, though does not use the SNMP protocol.

"The real innovative part is if you were then to go down and say, `let me look at that processor,' and click on that, you get all the information about the processor and its failure history, its temperature," Papadopoulos said. "It it is a way of combining a logical view of the system and the physical view."

Solstice SyMON, which uses proprietary protocols, works with all UltraSPARC servers, and will be "back-fit" to operate with the SPARCserver 1000 and SPARCcenter 2000.

When SunWorld Online pointed out that all of the new machines were badged "Enterprise," and asked if there will be a line of computers targeted at the technical market, Papadopoulos replied, "Hold that thought."
--Mark Cappel

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