Sun Can Kill Rock, but Not Its Memory Tech

Sun's Rock processor is probably dead, but the technology behind it, transactional memory, lives on at competitors

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

23 June 2009—According to two unnamed sources cited by The New York Times last week, Sun Microsystems has canceled its next-generation Rock microprocessor—a chip that, as IEEE Spectrum had previously reported, was scheduled to be released later this year.

If true, the cancellation would be a setback in the development of a performance-enhancing technology that acts as a traffic cop for a computer’s memory. ”Transactional memory,” or TM for short, polices simultaneously running sets of instructions in different processor cores that might otherwise overwrite one another’s work. TM’s proponents say the technology could better streamline code that runs on chips packed with more and more processor cores.

TM researcher Doug Lea, of the State University of New York at Oswego, says he’s waiting to hear the official word from Sun or its probable parent company, Oracle, about Rock’s fate. But with or without Sun, Lea thinks TM will continue to be a promising technology. ”Everybody who makes processors has some plans for transactional memory,” Lea says. ”AMD still has specs [for TM processors], and I know there’s more work at Intel and IBM on it.” Moreover, he says, Microsoft is now pursuing TM based not on a chip but rather in software. (Rock’s architect, Marc Tremblay, left for Microsoft this year.)

TM may live on, but the chip industry analysts Spectrum consulted were pessimistic about Rock’s fate.

“I believe it’s very likely that [the Times ’ reporting] is accurate,” says Rob Enderle, of the Enderle Group, based in San Jose, Calif. ”Building a processor is an incredibly expensive process and is incredibly high risk,” he says. ”Sun’s just not strong enough to bring one of these out...I’m not convinced we’ll have a situation where an individual company that builds hardware will be able to [launch a new chip architecture] in the foreseeable future.”

Charles King of Pund-IT, based in Hayward, Calif., says any decision to cancel Rock should not be read as a referendum on the viability of TM. “If [the Times ’] story about Rock being discontinued turns out to be correct, the decision may have been made more for political reasons than technical reasons,” he says.

King speculates that if Sun’s engineering teams had run into problems that needed additional time (Rock’s debut date was delayed at least twice), further deadline extensions, coupled with the uncertain economy, may have pushed the timetable for Rock’s release out too far. “Better to have the project shut down while Sun was still an independent entity than to have it as something that had to be done on Oracle’s watch,” he says.

Spokespeople from Sun and Oracle, when asked about this story, declined to comment.

About the Author

Mark Anderson is an author and science writer based in Northampton, Mass. In March 2009, he toured Plastic Logic’s Dresden fab, where the company is making a competitor to Amazon’s Kindle.

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