Fujitsu Technology Announces Faster SPARC-Based Systems

Now who has the fastest SPARC on the block?

Though the SPARC microprocessor architecture and the Unix systems of server giant Sun Microsystems Inc. are virtually synonymous with one another, Fujitsu Technology Solutions Inc. claims that it ships the fastest SPARC microprocessor—and says that it has the benchmarks to prove it.

Fujitsu’s flagship chip is currently its 810 MHz SPARC 64. Yesterday the company introduced a new microprocessor design: The 1.3 GHz SPARC 64 V, which it plans to begin shipping in volume in Q1 2003.

Although Sun originally invented SPARC (Scalable Processor ARChitecture), the Unix kingpin ceded control of SPARC development to a standards body in 1989. Today, SPARC defines an open set of technical specifications that a vendor or organization can license to produce its own SPARC microprocessors. A consortium of vendors (Sun and Fujitsu among them) are on the SPARC steering committee. Sun and Fujitsu collaborated to produce the first SPARC-based product in 1986.

At 1.3 GHz, Fujitsu’s new SPARC 64 V will have a higher clock speed than Sun’s forthcoming 1.2 GHz UltraSPARC 3 chip.

According to Richard Partridge, vice president of enterprise servers with consultancy D.H. Brown Associates, it’s not possible to make a meaningful assessment of the performance of today’s high-end RISC processors based on clock speed alone. Partridge says that’s because a processor with a blazingly fast clock speed—say, an Intel Pentium IV 2.0 GHz—can’t necessarily do as much work per cycle as a “slower” RISC-based chip, such as the Power or PA-RISC processors from IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), respectively.

“Clearly, the clock cycles per second is a Megahertz or Gigahertz frequency measure that people brag about, but the bottom line is that the performance level can be achieved in a couple of different ways. One is to push hard on the frequency. The other is to use cleverness in the design capability,” he comments.

To that end, says Tom Donnelly, senior product manager for the PrimePower server line with Fujitsu Technology, the new SPARC 64 Vs have the ability to complete more work per cycle than their predecessors.

“We used to have four simultaneous integer executions and four simultaneous floating point [executions per clock cycle], in SPARC 64 V. We’ve increased that to six simultaneous integer and four simultaneous floating point [executions] on every clock [cycle],” he asserts.

Donnelly claims that when SPARC 64 V’s new integer and floating point benchmarks are validated by the Standard Performance Evaluation Corp. (SPEC), its performance in SPEC’s integer benchmarks will outstrip IBM’s 1.3 GHz Power 4 and HP’s 750 MHz PA-RISC 8700 chips in addition to Sun’s 1.3 GHz UltraSPARC 3 processor.

D.H. Brown’s Partridge agrees that Fujitsu’s new SPARC 64 V processor will most likely surpass the performance of Sun’s new UltraSPARC 3 chips. That’s possible, he speculates, because any vendor that licenses SPARC can build its own performance enhancements on top of the standard architecture.

“I believe that Fujitsu is always slightly ahead of UltraSPARC, and I believe that the next generation has a pretty good lead against what Sun is currently shipping in its UltraSparc 3,” he says.

Benchmarks Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Nathan Brookwood, a principal with microprocessor consultancy InSight64, notes that record-breaking uni-processor benchmark results, such as those measured by the SPEC integer and floating-point tests, don’t offer an adequate indication of the potential scalability of a multiprocessor system. “People aren’t going to use a [uni-processor] benchmark as the basis of a decision to buy a [high-end] server.” It’s in this respect, Brookwood points out, that Sun, which ships a line of high-end SunFire Unix servers that scale to 106 processors, has traditionally shone. HP, for its part, currently ships a 64-way SuperDome server, and IBM ships a 32-processor AIX system.

For several years Fujitsu has marketed a 128-way system, the PrimePower 2000. Beginning with SPARC 64 V, Fujitsu will re-brand its flagship server the PrimePower 2500. The company will also introduce a 32-way system (the PrimePower 1500) in December. The latter system will initially be marketed with 810 MHz SPARC 64 chips, but will be refreshed with 1.3 GHz SPARC 5 processors in Q1 2003.

According to D.H. Brown’s Partridge, Fujitsu’s SPARC implementation boasts a number of features that are unique to the high-performance RISC space. In this regard, he suggests, Fujitsu’s SPARC 64 V has a lot in common with mainframe chips, particularly with respect to the way in which it attempts to recover from single bit errors at the hardware level.

“[Fujitsu has] done some mainframe-like error handling within the chip, including [an] instruction retry [facility] that’s typically found on mainframes but is not at all used by other RISC players, so I would describe this as a mainframe approach to the design of a chip,” he asserts.

Most RISC-based systems support instruction retry at the operating system level. Sun’s Solaris operating system, for example, will retry an instruction up to 17 times. Fujitsu’s new SPARC 64 V processors, however, will retry an instruction 15 times in hardware before passing it over to the operating system (in this case, Sun’s Solaris 8 or Solaris 9 operating environments, which Fujitsu ships with each of its PrimePower systems). “The difference between a hardware retry and a software retry is that [a hardware retry] is much faster,” Donnelly explains.

Fujitsu’s forthcoming PrimePower systems also feature a new, fabric-switched crossbar backplane that doubles memory and I/O performance from approximately 57 Gigabytes per second (GBps) to 133 GBps.

Fujitsu Technology is the North American subsidiary of Japan-based Fujitsu. A third, legally separate company, Fujitsu-Siemens, is the result of a joint venture between Fujitsu and Siemens in 1999. All three companies resell the same PrimePower systems, however.

According to market research firm International Data Corp., in 2001 combined sales of Fujitsu’s PrimePower systems garnered the fourth largest share of revenues in the high-end server space, outpacing industry stalwart HP.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.