Sun Microsystems, famous for its object-oriented based programming language Java, is set to enter into the PC-based microprocessor market later this year, with the first of a series of offerings based on grid processing architecture systems.
Grids are networks of computers that can operate in parallel with the aid of specialized software, to produce very powerful processing "machines" that can often excel beyond the processing power of expensive mainframe computers. Sun hope to adapt this model for a single machine: in effect placing multiple tiny computers on a single chip, that will communicate and process jobs in a similar manner to existing network-based grid systems.
Sun are calling their new development Throughput Computing, and they are taking it very seriously, so much so in fact that they are dedicating 1,300 of their 1,600 microprocessor engineers to the project.
Moore's Law states that microprocessor power will double every 18 months. This is generally achieved by adding more transistors to the computer chip, thereby increasing its processing power. For example, Intel's latest Itanium chip has 410 million transistors on the same surface area as that of a postage stamp. In order for this level of improvement to continue, the increases in miniaturization would have to be seen as infinite, which of course they are not.
In a recent article in The Irish Times (9-Jan-04), Dr. Marc Tremblay, the vice president and chief architect of the processor and networks division of Sun, said that Sun plan to take a "pretty drastic approach" to the way we think of how a computer processor works. Sun plan to divide the chip into separate processing regions, called cores, that will act as tiny microprocessors within a microprocessor, each one complete with its own memory chips. Each one can handle four separate threads, or processes active within the system, such as an application or service.
Sun plans to offer two, four and eight-core versions of the chip, with the first two-core version appearing later this year. Sun predict that using this technology will enable chips to be approximately 15 times more powerful than present chips by 2006.
Sun may now find themselves in the "diversify or die" situation due to the under-performance of their key products, mainly the decrease in sales of Sparc servers, which has resulted in a drop in revenue of some 50% and in share value of 95% since the year 2000 (Wired Magazine, December 2003). Sun's main growth area in recent times has been licensing for Java-powered games for mobile phones, but the mobile phone market is famous for being very volatile. Some feel that a takeover might be on the horizon.
For many years Sun has championed it's "David vs. Goliath" image with regard to it's bitter rivalry with Microsoft, but in reality it has failed to budge the Redmond beast. Sun's web middle-ware offering JSP (Java Server Pages) has always had a smaller user base than Microsoft's equivalent ASP (Active Server Pages), or as it is now called ASP.NET, while Sun's Java programming language was dealt a severe blow when Sun lost a court battle with Microsoft to have it's Java runtime environment software included in all distributions of Microsoft's Windows operating system.
A further blow may be dealt to Java with the release of the next version of Windows, currently code-named Long Horn, which is due for release in 2005. All distributions of Long Horn will include a full copy of the C# (pronounced C sharp) compiler, absolutely free (The Irish Times, 21-Nov-03). C# is Microsoft's new object-oriented programming language, which presently stands as the main rival to Java. This new move by Microsoft may also be designed to attract part-time programming enthusiasts away from Linux distributions, which traditionally contain a wealth of free programming tools.
Sun's plans for microprocessor design sound exciting and innovative, but unfortunately that market has it's own answer to Microsoft: Intel, and as AMD have found with their latest duel 32/64 bit processors, having better technology than a market leader does not necessarily lead to an increase in market share. Whether Sun can have more success against Intel than it did against Microsoft remains to be seen, but I for one would not rule them out just yet.
Updated 2020 : note that the above post is out-of-date, given this post was originally published in 2004, but is left here for archival purposes. Sadly, Sun Microsystems is no more.