Sun Open-sources T2 Processor

Santa Clara (CA) - Sun has opened up the hardware design description of the T2 processor, which theoretically allows anyone to copy and rebuild the CPU. But, of course, Sun doubts this will happen and instead hopes that complete access to the CPU's architecture will increase the interest of developers in its technology.

The T2 processor, called "OpenSparc T2" in its open-source version, is provided as a register transfer level design to the open-source community under the GPL 2.0 license and follows the OpenSparc T1 (based on the UltraSparc T1), which was released in March 2006.

"Open sourcing the UltraSparc T1 processor design was such a new concept it created some angst and a fair amount of debate before we pulled the trigger," said David Yen, Sun's executive vice president of Sun Microelectronics, in a prepared statement. "But there was no debate associated with T2. We've seen the success of open sourcing hardware, and the interest it has created in the developer, university and customer communities. The number of downloads have been impressive and confident we're expanding the market for Sun technology."

Fadi Azhari, director of marketing at the Microelectronics Group at Sun Microsystems, told TG Daily that the T1 data have been downloaded more than 6500 times in the past 20 months and has been considered a success. Providing open access to its chip's hardware design of course represents a certain vulnerability in the sense that a competitor can copy certain design elements or even copy the entire chip. However, Azhari told us that it would take another company "9 to 12 months" to bring a copy to market. Also, developments based on the OpenSparc release would require to be released under GPL licensing as well.

So, what does Sun gain from releasing its architecture under GPL 2.0?

In short, developer exposure. Realistically, as much praise as the T1 and T2 have received, the technology is locked into a niche today with limited opportunity for growth in an environment that is largely dominated by Intel's and AMD's x86 processors. Sun hopes that free and complete access to the technological details of the T1 and T2 will attract the interest of developers: The company announced that it has begun working with five universities - the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of Texas, Austin; the University of Michigan; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Carnegie Mellon University - which have pledged to design research and course work based on Sun's chip multi-threading (CMT) design over a "minimum two-year" period. Sun believes that students who work on T1 and T2 processors may continue working on these CPUs in their future professions.

Similar programs to attach universities to their technologies have been put in place by a variety of companies, including Nvidia and Intel, both of which are trying to educate a new generation of developers who can exploit the capabilities of stream and multi-core processors. Sun goes into a similar direction, but limits its academic efforts to providing the hardware design as well as "equipment", Azhari said. Nvidia, for example, is also helping to develop course work and is sending speakers to universities around the country.

If successful, Sun hopes that the open-source program could create a path for UltraSparc processor to be integrated in many more products than just servers and workstations. Azhari believes that Sun's CPUs could move into routers and switches as well as handheld consumer devices.