Sun's 16-core Rock processor due in mid-2008

Sun Microsystems Inc. has outlined an UltraSparc road map that bets on a future for applications that can effectively parcel out tasks among multiple cores. But Sun's plans may pose issues for users, especially those with upgrade plans over the next two years.

The major UltraSparc processor workhorses in the Sun line Thursday, such as UltraSparc IV+, will be succeeded by what Sun calls its "Rock" processor, which will have up to 16 cores and is aimed at applications that need a lot of memory and number-crunching ability, such as databases.

But Rock isn't due until the middle of 2008. Sun hasn't said when it will stop making improvements to its UltraSparc IV+ chip, but this summer it will introduce its Advanced Product Line (APL) servers, which it is jointly producing with Fujitsu Ltd.

The APL servers will replace Sun's existing Sun Fire systems and Fujitsu's UltraSparc-based PrimePower systems. Whether Sun users who need upgrades should buy the APL systems or wait for the Rock chip is "a function of timing," said Marc Tremblay, senior vice president and chief architect for Sun's system group. If customers need an UltraSparc upgrade after next summer, they will probably buy an APL "if [they] cannot wait another year," he said.

Sun detailed the product road map as part of an announcement that had completed the tape-out, or final design stage, of the Rock. "For us, the tape-out of this chip after 1,000 people-years of engineering demonstrates a commitment that we are on schedule," said Tremblay.

While Rock "hits the midrange and high-end pretty hard" of its existing UltraSparc product, Tremblay isn't saying that Rock is a complete replacement of the APL.