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In the beginning...
It has to be said that in 1987 when Sun introduced the first SPARC based computer, it certainly wasn't clear that SPARC was going to become the leading hardware platform for serious server applications. At that time most computer manufacturers were talking about introducing their own RISC based computers. The few which have survived as the engines of today's Unix derived computers are:- SPARC, HP's Precision Architrecture, and Silicon Graphics MIPS. Some others continued as graphics or floating point accelerators:- such as the transputer, and Intel's 860, and 960 RISC processors. IBM's original PC-RT was abandoned and replaced several years later with the much more successful PowerPC chip family. DEC's Alpha family also started much later. Many others vanished without trace once SPARC became successful.
In 1987 Sun had already achieved a leading position in the Unix workstation market with its two product lines based on Motorola 68020, and Intel 386 processor technology. The 386i was positioned as a lower cost, lower performance workstation compared to the Motorola based Sun-3 family. The 386i's DOS emulation and ease of use feature were calculated to entice users who might be intimidated by the cold shell of a pure Unix machine. In fact, within a few years, Sun was to drop both Intel and Motorola platforms and migrate its entire customer base to SPARC.
why did Sun and most other minicomputer oem's turn to RISC?
The market developments which encouraged all minicomputer oem's to look at a RISC strategy at that time were:-
- designing their own RISC architectures offered minicomputer oem's the attraction of breaking away from a dependence on the two main manufacturers of microprocessor chips at the time (Intel and Motorola). Systems vendors hoped to differentiate their products, which was difficult to do when they all used the same processor chips. In 1986 over 90% of PC's used Intel chips, and over 90% of workstations used Motorola chips. Today it's still true that over 90% of PC's use Intel architecture chips, but the largest proportion of Unix derived RISC systems actually runs on SPARC.
- the relatively low cost accessibility to semiconductor fabrication using gate arrays. Chip manufacturers who needed high volumes to recoup their capital investments of hundreds of millions of dollars (now billions) had figured out a way of producing standard product families of chips called gate arrays, which were identical except for the last few steps of the production process which defined the interconnections. This enabled computer systems companies to buy state of the art fabrication by effectively buying batches of wafers on a time-share basis from a few thousand dollars upwards, instead of the millions of dollars required previously .
- the deskilling of the chip design process by sophisticated computer aided design (CAD) tools enabled computer systems designers to design, test and simulate most of the design stages at their workstations, without needing knowledge of the underlying manufacturing process parameters. The software enabled designers to work at a logic function-block level without having to worry too much about the realities of interconnections, datapaths and process variations. This revolution in hardware logic design was akin to the invention of high level programming languages which enabled programmers to write their applications in terms of the problem, rather than needing to know exactly how the computer was built or wired together.
- the computer market had grown weary of the high costs of applications obsolescence, as one generation of computer hardware and software replaced another. Learning from the rapid technology changes in the early days of the Intel architecture PC market, users were starting to appreciate that open systems standards which were supported by many manufacturers helped increase choice and performance while at the same time keeping a lid on costs. In the multi-user application area, only one operating system - Unix - seemed to offer a safe choice. The proprietary alternatives from market leaders DEC and IBM, were very capable, but had a higher entry cost. For vendors, the simplicity of licensing and porting Unix onto their own hardware gave many small computer companies the ability to offer serious competitive alternatives to the low and mid range computers being sold by their much larger competitors on proprietary platforms.
The SPARC Product Directory has traced many of the historical developments in this market. Here are some of the highlights. See dates below.
At the end of 1996, we observe that the SPARC systems market has grown seriously large. The 1996/97 edition of the SPARC Product Directory contained nearly twice as many pages, more than four times as many products, and twice as many suppliers as our first edition. All the indicators we see suggest that this growth in the SPARC market will continue.
The availability of two competing 64 bit CPU SPARC chip sets (UltraSPARC from Sun Microelectronics, and SPARC64 from Fujitsu owned HAL Computer) clearly demonstrates that SPARC has reached a market size which will continue to attract competitive products even at the cutting edge of technology and performance for another decade.
SPARC is more than just an "Open" architecture. SPARC is a good place to look for anyone looking beyond the performance envelope of a desktop PC. The breadth of performance covers the full spectrum from portables to supercomputers. The range of hardware interfaces and connectivity options is unsurpassed. The applications experience represented by over 12,000 Solaris applications packages and the largest installed base of multi-processor servers makes SPARC the safe choice for your seriously complex computing application. Sun's policy of licensing technology and encouraging other oem's to use Sun developed interfaces means there's always a competitive choice for your next SPARC project.
During the first decade of SPARC systems, price, as well as performance increased in scalability. At the start of the decade in 1987 you could expect to pay about $40,000 for a usable SPARC based system. If you paid more, then what you got was more I/O, RAM or disk, but the processor power was restricted to a single CPU. By the end of 1996 a high end SPARC mainframe could cost over $1M, while at the low end, you could get a desktop SPARC based webterminal, the JavaStation for under $1,000.
The chronology below lists some of the significant events in the first decade of SPARC systems. With a pool of thousands of subjects we could have chosen from, we apologize to anyone involved with products or events we've left out. If you would like to nominate your own products, please send an email to ACSL subject: SPARC history, and we'll consider adding them in, or creating an alternative reader inspired history page.
Sun introduced the SPARCstation 1, rated at 12.5 MIPS, 1.4 MFLOPS, about 3 times faster than the Sun-3 model it replaced. This blew away all other competition on the desktop, because most competitors were still waiting to get volume quantities of Motorola's 68040 chip, to replace their 68030 models. In fact the 68040 took a long time in coming, which forced many workstation oem's to ship older models with the promise of a future upgrade. The SPARCstation 1 was the first computer to include an SBus interface.
December 6, 1989, Antares Microsystems announced the industry's first 3rd party SBus cards. These were:- the 10Base-2 Ethernet Controller, the SCSI-SNS Host Adapter, the Parallel Port, and the 8-Channel Serial Controller.
Tadpole Technology introduced the SPARCbook 1. The first true SPARC portable running Sun-OS.
An indication of how the SPARC compatible market had grown by this time, is that the first edition of ACSL's SBus Product Directory included details of over 75 oem's making SPARC computers and SBus cards, and over 300 products.
At the end of 1992, Sun launched the SPARCcenter 2,000 a 20 CPU capable datacenter server which remained Sun's flagship until 1996.
ICL previewed its GoldRush Megaserver, also a 64 CPU capable server, originally rated at 6,000 transactions/second.
Chip manufacturer Weitek (now part of Rockwell) introduced the SPARC power microP, a user installable CPU upgrade with clock doubling technology aimed at customers of SPARCstation 2's, and IPX's. These competed directly with Sun's own board swap upgrade program, and showed that the installed base of SPARC computers had reached a critical mass.
Integrated Micro Products (IMP) launched the FT-SPARC the first SPARC computer to be designed from the chips upwards as a genuinely fault tolerant architecture.
Sun replaced the SPARCstation 10 family with the similar, but higher performance SPARCstation 20.
Ross Technology announced hyperSPARC CPU's as user installable competitive upgrades to earlier MBus machines from Sun. In later years, hyperSPARC and Sun's own superSPARC competed for MBus slots in the factory as well as the installed base. Later that year, Sun started to include hyperSPARC models as alternative choices in its SS-20 family.
Shortly after HAL's announcement, Sun finally launched the long
expected Ultra 1, and 2 workstations which used Sun's 64 bit
From the 1995 edition of the SPARC Product Directory...
Launched in Q4 95, the Ultra 1 and 2 were the start of a new generation of SPARC based workstations and servers from Sun Microsystems. These models are positioned as high performance workstations, with intrinsic memory and processor performance above the SPARCstation 20 class, which has been discontinued by Sun.
The most obvious architectural feature is that the Ultra range uses the 64 bit UltraSPARC processor. The wider databus provides intrinsically faster performance than a 32 bit CPU at the same clock speed, but Sun has optimised the performance of the dataflows in the CPU to extract significant performance gains compared to previous SuperSPARC and HyperSPARC implementations. Additionally, the new visual instruction set (VIS) includes hardware for visual manipulation which was previously only available on external boards. Building these features into the CPU supports very high levels of graphics performance. There is no MBus in the Ultra machines. Processors, I/O and RAM connect via a crossbar switched interconnect which Sun calls UltraSPARC Port Architecture (UPA). SBus has been retained as the I/O expansion interface in these models. As with previous Sun models, there's room in the basic system design to support faster processors (up to and beyond 300MHz).
Ultra 1 model 140 model 170 - Single processor workstations with 64 bit UltraSPARC CPU. Model 140, 143MHz CPU, delivers 215 SPECint_92, and 303 SPECfp_92. Model 170, 167MHz CPU, delivers 252 SPECint_92, 351 SPECfp_92. RAM 8 SIMM sockets provide up to 512M. Graphics options:- in addition to the usual SBus graphics available on previous Sun models, the Ultra 1 is supported by a new family of Creator, or Creator3D systems connected via the UPA. New 3D RAM technology delivers upto 600M pixel operations/second.
Interfaces:- UPA (crossbar on motherboard), SBus (32/64 bit 60M bytes/sec), SCSI-2 (10M bytes/sec basic models, 20M bytes/sec FastWide on Creator models). Ethernet (10-BaseT for models 140, 170), (10-BaseT and 100-BaseT for 170E Creator models). Parallel - Centronics compatible port DB25 connectors. Serial I/O 2 x RS-232/RS423 with DB25. Audio 16 bit 8KHz to 48KHz, internal speaker, external mike. Keyboard/mouse interface Sun 5, AT 101, or Unix. Internal drive options:- 3.5" floppy, quad speed 644M Sun CD-ROM. Tape:- optional 4G or 8G DDS2 4mm, or 14G 8mm. Winchesters:- up to 2 x 3.5" x 1" (1G or 2G), or 1 x 3.5" x 1.6" (4.2G). (3 SBus slots) Operating system - Solaris 2.5 or later.
Ultra 2 - Multiprocessor workstations with 64 bit UltraSPARC CPU. Upto 2 x CPU's per system. Other features and interfaces as per the faster options for the Ultra 1, 170E above. (4 SBus slots )
Sun acquired the SPARC business of Cray Systems, from its new owner Silicon Graphics. These included the products, technologies and customer base associated with the SuperServer 6400 family.
Sun launched its family of Ultra Enterprise servers which included configurations up to 30 x 64 bit CPU's, and 30 x SBus channels. These Sun models, with an internal Gigaplane I/O bandwidth of 2.5 Gigabytes/second, set new standards of leadership for Unix datacenter servers.
Sun launched the JavaStation. A microSPARC based Network Computer, at a price point below $1,000
Sun Microelectronics launched the SPARCengine Ultra AX. This was an UltraSPARC based motherboard running Solaris with PCI-bus expansion, instead of the usual SBus. This was the first time that the industry standard PCI-bus, from the Intel PC world, appeared in a production SPARC based computer.
Archived SPARC news
below you can see archived news which tracks daily developments in the SPARC market from 2000 to the present day.
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The Last but not Least
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