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Sun Microelectronics: Creating a new era

Sun planet will grow microprocessor market with Java chips

By George Lawton

July  1996
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Sun Microelectronics is on a rampage. It's making deals left and right, and as a result, SPARC chips are being embedded in everything from office automation equipment and telephone switches to routers, hubs, and cable TV set-top boxes. The company also hopes to make 3D for the masses a reality. But while it chases high-end dreams, it is also targeting low-end appliances and devices with inexpensive Java chips. We catch up with Sun Microelectronic's growth spurt. (2,400 words)

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When Sun Microsystems split into a number of satellite companies several years ago, SPARC Technology Business' primary mission was to create high-powered, low-cost SPARC chips. The company then gradually expanded into new areas like building custom ASICs and improving its core SPARC technology. Still, not exactly exciting.

But with the sudden popularity of Java, SPARC Technology Business announced aggressive plans to create and license Java chips for use in a wide variety of appliances and office equipment. Last February it changed its name to Sun Microelectronics to reflect this focus and formed a new division, the Embedded Products Group. Chet Silvestri, president of Sun Microelectronics explained, "Our name change reflects the expanding business of the division. We have added considerable breadth and depth to our product lines and strategies since we first formed the division over two years ago. In the past two years we've aggressively grown our direct component sales of UltraSPARC, SuperSPARC, and microSPARC technologies. As a result we support approximately 100 design wins, with a rapidly expanding external revenue base. And now with our new family of Java processors, we've opened up a vast new spectrum of solutions for Internet and multimedia applications."

The growth of SPARC technologies
When SPARC Technology Business first split into a separate Sun division, it had one primary customer and only a few core products. Since then it has developed relationships with a number of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for applications ranging from telephone switches to clone computers and high-end copiers. At the same time, it has also improved its relationships with another Sun satellite, Sun Microsystems Computer Corp. (SMCC), which builds the finished computers.

"We have learned a lot in that we have to treat SMCC as a customer. We have sales reps dedicated and they get paid commission on accounts to SMCC. I think that makes a world of difference. We call on SMCC purchasing people, talk about whether or not we are a good supplier, and what we should do differently. We get rated, just like they rate Sony for delivering monitors. It has not been until somewhat recently that we really assigned sales reps and their livelihood really depended on how much SMCC buys from us. Before that we did it by lots of people interacting," Silvestri said.

But at a practical level, does SMCC have any choices? What would Scott McNealy say if the company started putting PowerPC or Alpha chips into its boxes? Silvestri replied, "They are not doing it, but they are buying SPARC chips from companies other than Sun Microelectronics. Even if they did not have choices, we still want to go through the discipline at the management level of saying, `treat us as a supplier and tell us how we can be better. Even if you have no choice, it does not matter, we want to be better.' We want to be a good supplier, because if we are not a good supplier to SMCC, we are not going to be a good supplier to anybody else. That is an advantage of this business model that I don't think was completely understood in the separation."

Mel Friedman, vice president of worldwide operations for SMCC said that when they first divided into separate companies, the relationship with STB was somewhat informal. Recently, this relationship has been formalized in some areas with the establishment of people that were accountable. "It has worked out well in terms of having a clear cut accountability matrix. We have done that with SMCC and in turn, STB has assigned people to work with us. They work to win our business and satisfy our road map and needs so the relationship is going much better."

In order to grow the market for SPARC chips even further, Sun Microelectronics has expanded into a number of different markets. On the computer side, it is working with Tatung, Axil, and Cray. Xerox, Kodak, and GE Medical are all embedding SPARC chips into their office automation equipment. Siemens is putting them into its latest-generation telephone switch. Bay Networks is using SPARC chips in routers and hubs. SPARC chips will even find their way into cable TV set-tops made by Hyundai.

When STB started, less than 5 percent of its revenue came from outside the company. That has grown to 30 percent today. Silvestri predicts external business could grow to well over 50 percent of all sales with the help of Java and other current projects.

One reason SPARC technology is being incorporated into such a wide variety of products is the flexibility of Sun Microelectronics to adapt its technology to different needs. A few years ago, it designed a line of Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) that could be used to complement SPARC technology in various applications. More recently, it created a line of SPARC-based boards that can help OEM vendors build computers faster.

At the moment, Sun Microelectronics' revenues are evenly split between CPUs, ASICs, and boards. Silvestri predicts that board revenue will grow the fastest over the next couple of months before Java chips hit the street. This is driven by vendors that want to improve their time to market. As Kam Chan, president of Tatung said about the company's plans to develop an UltraSPARC-based clone, "We would like to ramp up much quicker because the price to performance is better."

Eventually board sales could account for half of Sun Microelectronics SPARC-based revenues. This will help OEM vendors overcome the problems associated with designing a new system every time a new chip comes down the line. With a board, they can just pop the latest board into their existing chassis and have a next-generation computer on the market in a matter of months rather than a year or more.

"We are introducing new chips on a yearly basis and revving frequency on a six-to-nine month basis. It is hard to keep up with that at a platform design level by starting with the chip and getting it into the marketplace. By the time you get it into a product, the new chip has come out," Silvestri said.

"We launched our motherboard program around UltraSPARC at the same time we launched the UltraSPARC chip program. Since both the OEMs we had outside of SMCC and obviously SMCC had been working for a long time with the chips, they were able to ship in less than three months because of board-level products. They didn't have to go through a one-year design cycle. They could work in parallel because we gave them specs and all the information so they could have their boxes ready. They just put the boards in, packed it up, QA and tested it and shipped."


3D for the masses
With the explosive demand for multimedia, Sun Microelectronics is trying to steal the thunder from Silicon Graphics. Although SGI sells high-end graphics machines, it hasn't yet succeeded in moving 3D to the masses except by way of the movie screen.

But it is now possible to embed capabilities right into the CPU. For example, Sun Microelectronics has been working on a Visual Instruction Set (VIS) that allows a program to quickly run graphics processing algorithms, with a minimum set of instructions and load on the processor. Sun Microelectronics has embedded this kind of capability into its high-end UltraSPARC processors, but it will also appear in its low-cost Java chips as well. To build a need for VIS, Sun Microelectronics launched a developers program for independent software vendors (ISVs) and OEMs. With VIS developers kit, software developers can optimize their graphics applications to work with VIS. At the heart of this initiative is the VIS Competency Center where VIS developers can consult with engineers and marketing people and ready their applications for the marketplace.

Another technological leap for Sun Microelectronics is the UPA-switched interconnect. It replaces the bus in a computer with a high-speed switch that can shunt up to 1.3 gigabits per second between components. It will be used in the UltraSPARC 1 and 2 line of computers. But Silvestri said that the intensive needs of multimedia require something even faster to support the next generation of multimedia servers. "Just like CPU MIPS, there is an insatiable demand for network bandwidth so we have to put a lot of energy into UPA 2, or whatever the next-generation system bus is."

Going after the low end
While Sun Microelectronics pursues high-end computing, its Embedded Products Group is planning a range of low-cost Java processors for low-end appliances and consumer devices. It hopes this will lead to owning a substantial share of the networked microprocessor market, which is expected to exceed $15 billion by the year 2000.

At the low end of this family is the picoJava core, which has already been licensed to a number of companies for incorporation into their chips and consumer products that will begin shipping in early 1997. MicroJava chip sets will become available for testing at the beginning of 1997 and will appear in products by the end of next year. They will be optimized for low-cost Internet terminals and game boxes.

At the high end of the Java processor family, is the UltraJAVA processor line. Sampling will start in late 1997, and these chips will be used in workstations. But they will not be restricted to $20,000 workstations, since the $100 chips can be cheaply incorporated into PCs and a variety of consumer appliances to bring 3D to the masses.

At the JavaOne Conference last month, half a dozen companies endorsed Java chips and talked about their plans to incorporate the technology into their own devices. Northern Telecom is planning on introducing a line of picoJava-based cellular and desktop telephones. These telephones will have an LCD screen that will allow the consumer to make calls and access information services. One of the most attractive aspects of these telephones for the phone companies is that they can update programs on the fly and can customize user interfaces to fit their needs.

Xerox is planning on incorporating the microJava core into a high-end office printer that can be programmed to download and print out the latest news from the Internet on its own, among other things. Beau Vrolyk, vice president and general manager of workgroup products at Xerox said, "Many of my products are rapidly evolving replacements for copiers and other office products. You will see a trend toward these Internet appliances, and as we roll them out, we expect Sun to be one of our participants."

Lower down on the electronic appliances food chain, a number of silicon chip and consumer electronic manufacturers also announced plans to produce Java chips including Mitsubishi, NEC, Samsung Electronics, and Lucky Goldstar Electronics. These companies have the manufacturing expertise required to drive Java into inexpensive consumer devices.

Even though Java seems to be riding a wave of hype, some wonder about its utility as an operating system for embedded systems. Linley Gwennap, editor of the Microprocessor Report, points out, "I don't see a compelling technical argument for these products. It may be there is a lot of interest because of market hype. But when people look at the technology, people may decide it won't do what they want it to do. There are certainly other alternatives to Java on the Internet. I don't like to bet against Microsoft in a software area like that. In a year or two from now, the landscape will look fundamentally different."

The most compelling thing about Java, is that it makes it easy to port applications across a wide variety of processors and send information to almost any compatible device. This could lead to an explosion of new applications, much as the PC led to an explosion of desktop-productivity applications a decade ago.

Silvestri explained, "In the embedded world, it is very fragmented and niche-oriented. The CPUs, operating systems, and the software are all written for dedicated applications. There has been no way to create a PC phenomena. The Java infrastructure with Java OS, provides a kind of a leveling of what has previously been a fragmented business. I believe that Java will sweep the embedded world and is going to be a de facto hardware architecture standard."

But the problem with Java is that it tends to get slowed down when it is compiled onto other processors. Gwennap explained, "The key technical difference between Java and traditional programming languages from a hardware standpoint is that the Java code is interpreted in the processor instead of executed in the processor's native instruction set. Historically, this has been tried in the past, and resulted in a decrease in performance. You are trading off the decrease in performance versus the portability of running your Java code on any processor in the known universe. Sun's claim is that if you run Java on these chips you can overcome the performance issue. On the other hand, at that point, you lose the whole portability concept. If the advantage of Java is running on any processor, but you have to run on a Java processor to get good performance, then how portable is it really?"

In the aftermath, there may even be a fallout as companies reevaluate their need to use Java. "I think it is possible there will be a fallout. We have seen this thing before where people get excited about a new architecture and a year or two later it does not turn out to be the solution to everybody's problems," Gwennap said.

Still, the Internet is experiencing exponential growth right now, and Java promises to enable connectivity to just about any kind of device. If Java chips can provide Internet connectivity for electronic appliances at a low cost, they are bound to be used almost everywhere.

If nothing, else, Sun Microelectronics will continue to grow as the market for SPARC processors grows in workstations, switches, and set-top boxes. Even if the wave of Java hype fizzles out after a year, it is sure to gleam some business from the next generation of inexpensive network computers. But if interest in Java continues to grow, then Sun Microelectronics could certainly put a dent in a $15 billion market with its Java chips.

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About the author
George Lawton ( is a computer and telecommunications consultant based in Brisbane, CA. You can visit his home page at Reach George at

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