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HAL's 64-bit challenge

The wait is over, HAL Computer
releases first 64-bit SPARC systems

By Mark Cappel

October  1995
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In May 1990, Andrew Heller, an ex-IBM RS/6000 hardware mastermind, told the world his start-up, HAL Computer Systems, would create the world's fastest, most-reliable, and best-supported 64-bit workstation. Heller couldn't have picked three more difficult problems to surmount, especially in a fast-moving, ferociously competitive market. Five years later, HAL may have delivered on Heller's ambitious promises -- for now.

Campbell, CA-based HAL Computer Systems, now without Heller at its helm and owned by Fujitsu, unveiled a pair of 64-bit, SPARC-based workstations with SPEC92 performance numbers nearly double those of Sun Microsystem's mightiest single-CPU results. At SPECint 92 of 212 and SPECfp92 of 271 for the speedier HALstation 350, these machines don't outshine the fastest Digital Equipment Alphas, but they inhabit the same rarefied atmosphere.

[the HAL]

For the Chevrolet crowd, the HALstation 330 operates at 101 MHz, and offers a SPECint92 of 181 and a SPECfp92 of 212. Its suggested retail price, including a 2-gigabyte disk, 64 megabytes of RAM, and a 20-inch color monitor, is $23,010. For the Lexus buyer, HALstation 350 sports a 118-MHz CPU and the same basic peripherals as its slower brother. It costs $33,000.

By comparison, the fastest single-CPU Sun SPARCstation 20/71 is priced similarly to the HALstation 330, but offers a little more than half the performance in numerically intensive benchmarks.

64 bits and so much more
While its raw performance is noteworthy, HAL's real accomplishment is in its operating system, SPARC64. While Sun is expected to announce its own UltraSPARC-based 64-bit computers in November, the Solaris Sun is expected to offer initially with its UltraSPARC-based machines won't take advantage of the additional addressing capability.

The 64-bit addressing offers developers the ability to write programs that access unimaginable files that sprawl across billions of gigabytes of RAM and disk space. Today, 32-bit processors and operating systems can address 4.2 gigabytes of RAM, which according to HAL, gets cut in half by the overhead of Unix and the application. HAL refers to this as the "2 gigabyte barrier," an obstacle high-end technical users conducting simulations are starting to bump into.


But a 64-bit computer isn't just for epic datasets. Any 32-bit calculation involving calculations greater than several million dollars, for example, require the programmer to shift the calculation to floating-point representation (which can introduce rounding errors) or use a programming technique known as "packed-decimal," which is more computationally intensive. The 64-bit data representation allows banks to stick to integer math without resorting to packed decimal.

Still, it's these high-end users, an elite five to 10 percent of Sun's established customers, HAL officials say the company is targeting with its two new computers. To this end, HAL officials say the company has talked to the top 150 Solaris vendors, asking if they would recompile their programs to take advantage of HAL's 64-bit offering. Most said no, but HAL's spin on the ISVs who said yes is that these represent developers in market segments requiring not full 64-bit space (equaling 18 billion gigabytes), but addressing just beyond the 32-bit barrier. (HAL calls this requirement "the need for 33- or 34-bit addressing."

HAL says it doesn't need to attract the FrameMakers and Lotus Notes of the development world to be a success selling 64-bit computers. Productivity apps don't require additional addressing. HAL is touting success in signing on developers of technical applications, systems science (electronic design analysis, Visual Numerics (visualization and data analysis), and MARC Analysis Research (mechanical computer-aided engineering) applications.

HAL's SPARC64/OS is based on Solaris 2.4 (Fujitsu owns a source-code license), though HAL marketers are careful not to call it Solaris. HAL is anxious not to be seen as a mere clone maker. HAL guarantees user applications will operate on the HALstation as-is, and offer to buy back any computer that proves incompatible. SPARC64/OS includes the usual Solaris accoutrements including ONC, Tooltalk, OpenWindows, and the Deskset applets.

HAL reports, as you might expect, that porting applications from the 32-bit Solaris to SPARC64/OS is a breeze, and requires the user choose one of three paths:

  1. Nothing. Old applications will run as-is, but faster on the SPARC64 CPU.
  2. Recompilation. The developer can recompile the application using a HAL C or Fortran compiler with SPARC64 switches set. The application is still 32-bit, but runs even faster.
  3. A rewrite. The developer can rewrite the application to take advantage of 64-bit addressing. Without an application rewrite, 32-bit programs running on a 64-bit HAL are still 32-bit programs (as they will be on the new Sun, as well.)

    Speeds and feeds
    The heart of HAL's computers is a new multi-chip module similar in concept to the Ross hyperSPARC and IBM POWER CPUs. (Ross Technology is also owned by Fujitsu.) In a departure from other modern monolithic CPUs, multi-chip modules consist of small "chiplets" stitched together on one substrate.

    Their advantage is density. The SPARC64, for example, weighs in with 22 million transistor-equivalents (mostly cache). (By contrast, the SuperSPARC has 9.1 million transistors.) The disadvantage is price. Due to their complexity, multi-chip modules cost more to manufacture than single chips, though this is usually not an issue with low-volume computers. (Microprocessor Report, a newsletter covering chips in almost frightening detail, estimates SPARC64 costs $770 to build, as compared to $420 for Sun's UltraSPARC and $180 for a Ross HyperSPARC module.)

    [photo of HAL CPU]

    [photo of HAL motherboard]

    [photo of HAL RAM]

    At left is the multi-chip CPU module. The model's finger points to the MCM module, which is actually on the back of this board. Above and to the right of the MCM are three slots to hold RAM. Below the MCM is the slot that plugs into the motherboard. Note the 40 or so silver buttons allong the bottom and left of this board. These are actually low-frequency capacitors that help ensure stable voltage. Not visible on this board are medium-frequency capacitors that also stabilize voltage. On the MCM module itself are still more tiny high-frequency surface-mount capacitors that control the electrical flow to the CPU.

    The center photograph above is the motherboard. The I/O slots are along the top edge. In the upper left quadrant of the PCB board is the graphics chip complex. They do standard Sun graphics. In the lower left quadrant are the chips supporting I/O. The ports on the back are all the same standard I/O connectors found on modern Suns.

    The right photograph above is a 64-bit HAL memory board. Note the ASICs that provide ECC along the right of the card.

    Photographs by Michael McCarthy/SunWorld Online

    Because SPARC is a published specification, anyone may build a SPARC chip without paying a license fee to Sun. HAL based SPARC64 on the same "V9" specification Sun is using for UltraSPARC, though it did not receive engineering help from Sun in designing SPARC64. HAL's corporate parent Fujitsu will manufacture the chip in its plants in Mie and Numazu, Japan using .35 and .5 micron CMOS technology.

    Unlike Sun, HAL plans to make SPARC64 available on the merchant market, though HAL may share it with fellow Fujitsu subsidiaries ICL and Amdahl.

    Generally speaking, chip designers today either build CPUs that can operate at very high clock rates (Digital Equipment's Alpha is a good example) or else they pack a lot of work into each cycle. SPARC64 fits in the latter, "brainiac" camp. It can issue up to four instructions per cycle to eight execution units. At its heart, SPARC 64 contains:

    SPARC64 has an 8K L0 cache built into the main processor, and a pair of 128K L1 caches built into the multi-chip module; one for instructions and the other for data. While this may not seem like a large cache, HAL is quick to note that the SPARC64 uses a 1 gigabyte-per-second channel to RAM, which is not shared with any other component. By contrast, HAL points out, the 264 megabyte-per-second MBus Sun uses in its SPARCstation 10 and 20 serves not only as a memory path but as the computer's general system bus.

    Because of the HALstation's multiple-bus design, HAL officials say the real-world performance differences between a HALstation and a SPARCstation are more pronounced than the SPEC benchmarks would suggest. (The SPEC92 benchmarks fit almost entirely within modern systems' secondary caches, a rare event in user applications.)

    When asked about Sun's expected UltraSPARC computers, HAL officials say Fujitsu has a higher-clock-rate version of the SPARC64 in the wings (perhaps operating at 154 MHz), that should be available in early 1996. Two other versions of SPARC64 "are in the pipeline." HAL hopes to stay one step ahead of Sun in the performance race at all times.

    [photo of HAL cabinet]

    [photo of HAL cabinet]

    [photo of HAL cabinet]

    The photo above and to the left shows the four drive bays. Both HALstations have a pair of 5.25-inch drive bays, and a pair of 3.5-inch bays.

    The center photo shows the HALstation's cage-within-cage design. The smaller cage holds the CPU module (at the back) into which slide memory cards and the motherboard. This cage slides into the larger system cage, which contains fan at the top back, disk drives top forward, and power supply bottom forward. HAL claims an inexperienced administrator can field-strip a HALstation in 25 minutes.

    The right-most photograph shows a HALstation no one can buy. It's a prototype of the HALstation 330 and 350 with unique "winged" drive-bay access doors. HAL settled on the more conventional door on the present model because the swing-wide flaps can be awkward in tight spaces. Fred Berkowitz, a HAL platform development director and father of the winged design, dreams of revisiting the weird-door idea in a future model in the form of minivan door-style sliding panels.

    Photographs by Michael McCarthy/SunWorld Online

    In contrast to Sun's popular pizza-box cabinet, the HALstations' industrial design is of the tower camp. It can house a pair of 5.25-inch, and two 3.5-inch peripherals. The HALstations have four SBus slots, and the normal ports one expects on workstations today. Both HALstations are manufactured at an Amdahl plant in Sunnyvale, CA.

    While HAL accomplished Heller's dream of creating the world's speediest single-CPU SPARC computers, Heller also dreamt of creating a reliable machine supported by a world-class maintenance organization, too. On paper, the HALstations appear to offer mainframe-class reliability features, including:

    As for creating a world-class service organization, HAL is relying on Bell Atlantic to function as its field-service group.

    How will HALstations sell?
    HAL will sell its wares in the US through resellers, and in Europe though sister company ICL, which is based in the UK. Fujitsu will sell HALstations through the Fujitsu sales force in Japan and elsewhere in the Far East.

    "HAL should have fairly reasonable success, based on the strength of its channels," said Andy Feit, Dataquest's director of desktop and workstation programs. Feit sees HAL enjoying its biggest success not in the US, where its resellers face competition not only from Sun's sales force but other resellers, but overseas where ICL and Fujitsu salespeople will sell the line.

    HAL's sales success "depends on HAL staying 30 percent ahead of UltraSPARC in performance," Feit said. Ultimately, however, Fujitsu doesn't see HAL Computer Systems as an engine to create workstation sales, Feit said, but as a US R&D center for Fujitsu and its Amdahl and ICL subsidiaries.

    -- Mark Cappel

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