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SPARC History from 1987 to 2010

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor

This was originally published in 1996 - as the 1st decade of SPARC - in the SPARC Product Directory - and thereafter archived weekly from SPARC news upto the time of Sun's acquisition by Oracle

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.

    ...Later:- November 2010 - Sun Micro was LSI Logic's smartest ASIC customer - according to one comment in LSI's 30th anniversary article.
  • 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.


1996 perspective

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.


Dates - 1987 to 1999 - key SPARC market milestones

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.

  1. Sun introduced the the first SPARC based computer the Sun-4. This was a VME bus based machine and was packaged in the same enclosure as Sun's top of the line Motorola based Sun-3 servers.
  1. Sun started the Florida SunFlash, an email newsletter to keep partners, customers and internal Sun personnel up to date with the rapid stream of Sun's new products.
  1. Sun, with other partners set up SPARC International, Inc as the industry body to disseminate technical information about SPARC, and facilitate the licensing of technology and trademarks.

    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.

  1. Sun introduced the SPARCstation 2, rated at 28.5 MIPS, 4.2 MFLOPS.

  1. Sun introduced the SPARCserver 600MP. This was Sun's first multiprocessor machine, and was the last generation of computers from Sun to include the VMEbus. However, each processor card also included 4 x SBus slots. The 600MP processors ran at the same speed as the SPARCstation 2, but underlying the design was the new MBus architecture, which enabled field upgrades to faster CPU's, when these became available in subsequent years.

  1. Sun introduced the SPARCstation 10.. This was Sun's first desktop multiprocessor machine, capable of having 1 to 4 CPU's.

    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.

  1. Cray Research launched the SuperServer 6400. A datacenter server with 64 x CPU capability.

    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.

  1. ICL did the largest ever rollout of new SPARC server products, with its teamserver and superserver product lines, with integral RAID capability, with every model rated in transactions/second.

    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.

  1. Fujitsu owned HAL Computer launched the industry's first workstations based on a 64 bit CPU, HAL's own SPARC64.

    Shortly after HAL's announcement, Sun finally launched the long expected Ultra 1, and 2 workstations which used Sun's 64 bit UltraSPARC processor.

    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 )

    IDG Launched SunWorld Online - the world's first independent Sun publication on the web.

    (The 1995 market review text below is unchanged from the SPARC Product Directory published at that time.)

    Market Developments in 1995 - Q1 announcements

    Sun Microsystems launched two desktop models that redefined the entry level for SPARC based computers. The SPARCstation 4, which replaced the SPARCclassic as Sun's lowest price entry level desktop workstation, and the SPARC Xterminal 1 which replaced the SPARCclassic X as Sun's lowest price desktop terminal. It's likely you would only use the SPARC Xterminal 1 if you already have SPARC servers running Solaris. But at a launch price $1,600 below the entry level workstation, it's a serious contender for sensitive budgets.

    In the past, X terminal customers who didn't need the high graphics performance of CAD applications tended to go elsewhere for their desktop terminal needs e.g. to HP, NCD or Tektronix. But as more SPARC servers are deployed in commercial database applications, Sun can't ignore the business potential of large numbers of terminal seats. The cost engineered features in this model (i.e. it doesn't have the fastest processor from the SS-4 because most people don't need it) show that Sun is taking this segment of its market more seriously, and would like to get more of this kind of business.

    General Imaging launched its Texas Instruments based TMS 320C80 SBus Co-processor card. The S/IP80 card is designed for signal/image processing applications. The TMS 320C80 is a single chip which includes 4 x 32 bit DSP parallel processors running at 25MHz delivering up to 1 Billion operations per second. If that wasn't quite enough, the card also includes an on-board video digitizer. Multiple cards can be run as part of a software coherent system that scales up to 30 billion operations per second.

    Market Developments in 1995 - Q2 announcements

    The main event in this quarter was the SunWorld exhibition in San Francisco. The trends seen in the products exhibited were evolutionary rather than revolutionary. More vendors are now positioning their products for telecomms or Internet use. Most vendors now have something to say about how their products can address the needs for High Availability applications, although there are still very few vendors who have complete solutions in this area.

    Data/Ware launched the DW3300, an SBus to IBM Channel Interface. This emulates an IBM 3088 adapter and enables an IBM mainframe running the MVS operating system to transfer files and jobs to an attached SPARC host. Although file transfers can operate in either direction, it's likely that the main use of such a product will be to offload CPU intensive tasks from the mainframe. However, there are also many organizations which still use their IBM mainframes as the main repository for corporate data, and in those cases the transfers may go the other way.

    Market Developments in 1995 - Q3 announcements

    The summer can be a quiet time for new product announcements, although this year witnessed the biggest computer market launch ever, in the shape of Microsoft's Windows 95 rollout. It's possible that most other computer vendors wisely avoided doing anything in this time frame because they would have found it hard to attract much attention in the glare of Microsoft's publicity.

    Two announcements in the media world this quarter had special significance to Sun users, the launch of SunFlash (aka FlashBack) as an independent newsletter, and the launch on the world wide web of SunWorldOnLine. Apart from the issue of timing, and the common theme of Sun related news, the publications also share an editor, inasmuch as John J. McLaughlin the editor of Flashback is also the new products editor for SunWorldOnLine.

    The first of these announcements concerned changes in the structure of the Internet based email newsletter called "SunFlash" (there's also another variant called "FlashBack"). SunFlash had been running for over 6 years as an in-house communications organ of Sun Microsystems. During the summer, it became an independent commercially run news service, although its editor John J. McLaughlin, remains at the helm.

    The main effect for the 140,000+ people who receive this newsletter is that independence from Sun will help to broaden out the coverage of products and news, although it's reasonable to assume that most of the material will still have a core based around Sun, Solaris or SPARC. If you don't get this news service, you can get general information on how to subscribe by sending an email to:

    Flashback@FlashBack.COM with 9001 in the Subject line.

    The second media announcement was the launch of a magazine called SunWorld Online on the world wide web. You can see this magazine for yourself on: http://www.sun.com/sunworldonline

    This new magazine is published by International Data Group (IDG), and it's edited by much of the same team which produced Advanced Systems. The latter is no longer available as a printed magazine. To quote from their own press release...

    ..."SunWorld Online is heir to a line of print publications dating back to 1988, when a renegade marketing group at Sun founded the quarterly Sun Tech Journal. Sold to IDG in 1990, it became SunWorld, a monthly magazine with a circulation of 72,000 plus editions in Japan and Great Britain. In 1994 the name changed to Advanced Systems in order to broaden its subscription base to 90,000 Unix readers. This May the decision was made to become the first major computer magazine to go completely digital."

    We wish both these new titles good luck, and hope that you'll get a chance to have a look at them.

    ...Later:- 5 years later - December 19, 2000 - SunWorld Online relaunched as UNIX Insider to reflect changing industry trends. "UNIX has not been `just Solaris' for many years," said UNIX Insider Executive Editor Joe Franklin in a letter to readers.

    Market Developments in 1995 - Q4 announcements

    The quarter hadn't started as we went to press, but there's no doubt that the most significant launch for users of SPARC systems will be the new UltraSPARC based servers from Sun Microsystems. The UltraSPARC processor is a 64 bit CPU and ushers in the start of a new decade for SPARC systems. (The first SPARC systems were shipped by Sun in 1987). Doubling the datapath from 32 to 64 bits would normally provide a potential doubling of performance (other factors being equal) but as reported in earlier editions of this directory, the SPARC Technology Business (STB) division of Sun has introduced intrinsic architectural support for multi-media applications in addition to speeding up the pre-existing processor cores. When the first systems ship, they will run existing 32 bit Solaris application binaries from 3 to 6 times faster than current SuperSPARC systems.

    As you'd expect from any new processor, applications which are bounded by the performance of a single processor will run a lot faster. But another benefit, is that the new processors can address large physical RAM more efficiently, so that Solaris users who have large databases (over 4G) or other large data sets can look forward to a speed-up in running their applications and can stop looking at competing products such as Digital Equipment's Alpha. Two general factors of interest to current users, which may get lost in the hype when the new UltraSPARC systems are launched.

    1 - The I/O interface supported is SBus. (This is deduced from the chip-set which accompanies the UltraSPARC. ) The consequence is that SBus will remain a significant expansion technology for SPARC based systems for some years still to come.

    2 - The memory bandwidth of the first generation UltraSPARC is already close to the maximum limit of the MBus, and any MBus based implementation of this 64 bit processor would throw away most of the potential performance gains. Therefore users shouldn't expect to see MBus based enhancements to their existing systems (anytime soon) as they have already seen with the HyperSPARC generation of upgrade products. However, upgrades may still be expected in the traditional form of board or system level swaps.

    The fact that UltraSPARC machines will need to be new designs rather than modified MBus designs also means that there may be a delay before most other vendors get their new 64 bit SPARC products to market.

    STB has affirmed that some of the features which contribute to the high performance of the 64 bit UltraSPARC (which is a 4 way superscaler design) will trickle down to a future generation of low cost microSPARC III based products. So whatever the performance level of your current SPARC systems, all users will eventually benefit from the performance and increased market confidence that arise from this launch. You'll also be able to hang on to your investments in SBus cards and related software and reuse them in a new generation of faster systems.

    Retrospective... In fact Fujitsu owned HAL Computer, was the first company to launch a 64 bit SPARC based computer, based on their own developed SPARC64 processor. The HALstations were announced less than a month before Sun's Ultra 1 and 2.

  1. Sun acquired IMP. The Sun-IMP business unit is expected to transfer its fault-tolerant technologies within Sun's product range, and continue its strong penetration in the telecoms market.

    Sun acquired the SPARC business of Cray Systems, from its new owner Silicon Graphics. These included the products, technolgies and customer base associated with the SuperServer 6400 family.

    Sun launched its family of Ultra Enterprise servers which included configurations upto 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.

    (The 1996 market review text below is unchanged from the SPARC Product Directory published at that time.)

    Market Developments in 1996 - Q1 announcements

    In this period Sun came to the attention of a wider audience than usual as a result of its reported attempt to purchase Apple Computer. If you ignored the inevitable speculation about why Sun would want to buy Apple, the real reasons for which is only known to a handful of people, you would still be left with the conclusion that Sun Microsystems is now a large enough company and has sufficient financial muscle to seriously contemplate acquiring any one of a whole bunch of household names in the computer market if it really wanted to. Although Sun is very well known in the server market, and millions of computer users are connected via SPARC machines somewhere in their workplace, this was the first time that many non technical people in the wider PC market became aware of Sun as a significant player.

    As we went to press, Silicon Graphics Inc (SGI) was making moves to purchase Cray Research. Cray Research manufactures the "big brother" of Sun's SPARCcenter 2000E, and this move would provide a useful extension to SGI's product line. It's likely that SGI would be able to sell more of these high end machines than Cray Research because it has a larger installed base, and it's easier to work upwards than sell a point product at the top of the performance range.

    SPARC Technology Business, the division of Sun Microsystems which develops new processors and markets technology at chip and board level to other OEM's changed its name to Sun Microelectronics. The "Sun" brand is more appropriate as this business now includes the marketing of Java chipsets which are more strongly associated with Sun as a software standards developer.

    SPARC workstation competitors Tatung Science and Technology Inc, and Axil Computer both announced the availability of new workstations which incorporate the 64 bit UltraSPARC processors from Sun Microelectronics. Tatung customers can upgrade their COMPserver 20 products by replacing the processor board. The Axil Ultima 1 family is shipping with Solaris 2.5.

    While we're on the subject of go-faster hardware, this edition of the directory includes a new contender for the title of fastest SBus disk interface. Meltek Data's SBus Fibre Array controller claims 106M bytes/second channel rate. More than just a fast RAID, the Fibre Array, also from Meltek supports multi-host connectivity, and potentially up to 450G bytes of fault tolerant disk storage.

    This quarter also saw a few cosmetic changes in this publication, with the name change from the "SBus Product Directory" to the "SPARC Product Directory." We also introduced a format change, so that instead of printing different editions of the directory in Europe and the USA, at slightly different intervals we've now got one edition, one cover and one paper size. That's progress...

    Also in February 1996 - Sun's merger talks with Apple ended.

1997. The market's first compact PCI SPARC SBCs launched by Force Computers.

ACSL published the last ever printed edition of the SPARC Product Directory and completed the transition to the web format which had been started in the summer of 1996.

1998. SPARC pioneer Axil Computer closes down operations.

1998. SPARC notebook makers Tadpole Technology and RDI Computer merged to form Tadpole-RDI.

1998. Anticipating the next big change in the server market - ACSL launched StorageSearch.com

1999. Examples ot hot products in the market this year included:- rackmount SPARC servers, SPARC notebooks and SPARC motherboard upgrades.

For the period January 2000 to December 2006 - refer to the archived daily SPARC news in the right hand column on this page. (You may have to make your browser window wider to see it - and scroll up a bit.)
about these SPARC History Resources
by Zsolt Kerekes, editor

the first time I saw a Sun workstation was back in 1986 - sitting on my wife's desk at her new job as product manager for a start up ASIC company. (She also had a terminal for a VAX on the same desk too.)

It was common in those days for computers not to talk to each other. Back in my own office on my desktop I had a PC which enabled me to communicate with our sales people, and a VDU through which I could log into various Unix or real-time computers we were using or building for our customers.

When I saw that Sun-3 workstation in 1986 I was really impressed!

It was better than any of the Unix boxes back in my HQ. Within a short period I decided to ditch the other Unix platforms we were using and signed up my company as a Sun VAR. And within a few years we were also oeming Sun's SPARC motherboards in our VME based systems too.

In 1991 set up my own company as an independent publisher to research and publish a new directory for what I anticipated would be a fast growing exciting market for SPARC systems. In that context as editor and publisher I spoke to every manufacturer in the SPARC market and over 1,000 Sun VARs too over the years which followed.

In the early to mid 1990s I was an enthusiastic SPARC evangelist and a great believer in SPARC's ability to deliver cost effective, reliable and fast servers. The SPARC ecosystem in those days included hundreds of manufacturers, many independent chipmakers and over 50 companies who made their own workstations and servers.

It was a privilege for me to have close contact with all the companies who were making waves in this market, and also with the editors and sales teams working in many other Sun SPARC related magazines, ezines and websites. Even Sun thought what I was doing was a good idea. It was helping to grow their market and I got a lot of useful publicity from their press machine - while remaining genuinely independent. Our paths were aligned on the same course for many years.

Much of what you read in these SPARC history pages was written at the time from direct first hand sources. Sometimes, I've retrospectively added corrections or snippets - from readers who were involved in the market - or from trawling some of the tens of thousands of emails in my inbox about this subject.

I learned a lot from my experience in the SPARC market
  • about how new technology markets can grow
  • how to become an internet publisher
  • and the importance of reliable information.
I've been lucky enough to adapt these lessons in my later life - to the storage market where I still earn my living by reading and writing about fascinating technology markets.

All good things come to an end.

In April 2009 Oracle announced an agreement to acquire Sun Microsystems for approximately $7.4 billion.

This ended nearly a decade of speculation about the future of Sun Microsystems, a company which created a unique server business peaking at over $20 billion annual revenue at the turn of the Millennium.

You can read how Sun created that market, then lost it piece by piece and then finally lost itself in the storage market in these articles, written as events unfurled - which track the 22 History of SPARC systems market.
Here are some other resource pages
SSD ad - click for more info
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legacy Tatung banner from the SPD in 1999

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When the first SPARC computers were launched, they were all single processor systems...
A SPARC processor in 1987 was a 32 bit CPU clocked at 16.67MHz with a performance of about 10 integer MIPS and 1.6 MFLOPS.

The 1987 SPARC CPU chip was implemented in a Fujitsui 20k-gate, 1.3-micron CMOS gate array.

The 2nd implementation was a full-custom 0.8-micron design from Cypress Semiconductor and operated at 33 MHz and 20 MIPS. ...Many thanks to Robert B Garner - who was lead architect of SPARC and co-designer of the Sun-4/200 - for contacting me and supplying the above information.

In 1995, the fastest SPARC processors were the UltraSPARC models used in Sun's Ultra 1. These were 64 bit CPU's with a clock speed of 167MHz providing a performance of 252 SPECint_92. The way of measuring performance has changed but that's a speedup of over X20 for a single CPU, and over 1,000 times faster for a maximally configured datacenter server.

After 10 years of development a SPARC mainframes could have 60 or more processors installed.
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SSD ad - click for more info
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Archived SPARC news

below you can see thousands of archived SPARC news stories which track daily developments in the SPARC market from 2000 to the present day.

2009

chronicles the year leading up to Sun's acquisition by Oracle

2008

Q4 2008 - Sun Sources SSDs from STEC

September 2008 - Sun Fires New Salvo in Server Virtualization Wars

July / Aug 2008 - Sun and Fujitsu Unveil SPARC64 VII Servers

Delivering 2GHz performance 7 years later than customers needed was symptomatic of Sun's failure to satisfy expectations.

In a technology roadmap in 1996 the fast growing Sun had promised that SPARC CPUs would remain at least twice as fast as those made by Intel or AMD. Instead they were slower.

Q2 2008 - Sun Buys x86 Chip Company

Q1 2008 - China Becomes New OpenSPARC Incubator


2007

Q4 2007 - Dell Will Offer Solaris on PowerEdge Servers

September 2007 - LEON3 SPARC Licensed for Space Missions

August 2007 - Sun Ships UltraSPARC T2


August 2007 - SUNW becomes JAVA

Jonathan Schwartz, president and CEO of Sun said - "The Java brand and technology have evolved to be among the most pervasive on the internet, yielding extraordinary awareness for Sun and opportunity for the community that leverages it."

At the time my "editor's comment" was - "This gets the prize for being the stupidest thing I have heard from Sun in recent years. If Sun hadn't weakened the SPARC brand for the past decade and lost most of its shareholder value than SUNW would still be worth something more than it is today."

...Later:- the strong vacuum in Sun's marketing thinking demonstrated by it choosing JAVA as its new ticker symbol - are seen more clearly in retrospect.

JAVA is not a product or item which ever headlined in Sun's financial reports. Instead of choosing "SPARC" or "Solaris" or even leaving it as "SUNW" Sun made a statement that it wanted to be remembered as a developer of program scripts - in the same way that we remember that AT&T's Dennis Ritchie invented the C programming language, and that Tim Berners-Lee, working at CERN, invented the World Wide Web...

Interesting from the historic point of view - but a business irrelevance today.


July 2007 - Sun's Results Show Failure to Leverage Storage

Sun revealed that its storage revenue was down 10% compared to the year ago period. That was at a time when many of the other top 10 storage companies were reporting over 20% revenue growth.

It was clear to storage analysts like me that Sun had failed to leverage any worthwhile benefit from its expensive acquisition of StorageTek 2 years earlier. Users were regarding Sun mainly as a tied storage supplier, instead of an open supplier of storage to non-Sun servers. So the company had to make its server business work better to survive. Storage was not going to be its get out of jail free card.

June 2007 - Sun Blade 6000 Launched

May 2007 - UMC to Make Sun's SPARC Chips

April 2007 - ASCDI Files Anti Competitive Complaint Against Sun

March 2007 - Sun Resurrects STB

February 2007 - NextComputing Ships 1.6GHz SPARC Portable

January 2007 - Sun Returns to Profitability


2006

December 2006 - Previewing the Future of the SPARC Market


November 2006 - Transitive Demos SPARC Apps on Intel Boxes

November 7, 2006 - Transitive announced the availability of a virtual appliance that provides an evaluation release of QuickTransit for Solaris/SPARC-to-Linux/x86-64 pre-installed within a VMware Virtual Machine.

The virtual appliance provides data center managers with a quick and easy evaluation of Transitive's innovative hardware virtualization solution by allowing them to execute their Solaris/SPARC applications inside a VM on a 64-bit x86-based system, running either the free VMware Server or the high-end VMware Infrastructure 3 platform. No software installation or configuration is required.

...Later:- although long anticipated, this showed that the rising tide of the new Solaris Migration (away from Sun's SPARC) had passed a pivotal point. All previous offerings had been engineer intensive, costly and error prone, suiting only very large customers who could offset the migration costs against lower cost server hardware.

With the promise of automated tools - users who had hung onto their SPARC setups (but who were still dissatisfied with Sun) found it easier and less risky to take that first step.


October 2006 - Sun announces OpenSPARC Community Advisory Board

The board is chartered with setting the direction for OpenSPARC, a community that fosters the creation of tools and derivative chip designs based on Sun's UltraSPARC T1 processor. The community now includes a new GNU/Linux distribution, Gentoo Linux, which is supporting UltraSPARC T1 in the latest release, and the first published derivative of the chip design from Simply RISC.

...Later:- oems haven't exactly rushed to join the SPARC lonely hearts club band.

That's partly because many oems remember being burned by too much Sun in the late 1990s.

It wasn't all Sun's fault. (Although some of it was.)

Much of the corporate Sun-burn which SPARC collaborators attributed to Sun - was actually due to naiive marketing and a mistaken belief that SPARC's performance and reliability would stay ahead of the Intel market. When the IT market shrank - and the technology lead disappeared - the need for so many co-marketers of SPARC solutions vanished too.

Processors are no longer the driving force for application acceleration. Instead - it's solid state storage.

From time to time I talk to processor chip designers about the potential for very dense multi-core CPUs designed for an SSD universe. That's the future. It could be SPARC or it could be Intel. Which one would you go for if you were the product manager in charge of that?


September 2006 - SGI Pulls the Plug on MIPS

August 2006 - Clerity Acquires Sun's Mainframe Rehosting Business

July 2006 - Running SPARC / Solaris Apps on Intel Hardware

Transitive said it would soon launch an emulation package to run SPARC / Solaris applications on Intel / Linux servers.

Not only would this provide usable performance - but in some cases the SPARC apps would run faster on Intel servers than on the original SPARC machines on which they had been deployed.

This made it much easier for SPARC users to test the benefits of migrating away from Solaris.

June 2006 - Sun Says - 85% of the Fortune 500 Have Solaris 10

May 2006 - Why Solaris will Get 128 Bit Addresses

April 2006 - McNealy Gives Up the CEO Hot Seat at Sun

March 2006 - Sun Releases Source of UltraSPARC T1 Processor

February 2006 - Sun Embarks on Linux Port for SPARC

January 2006 - SPARC Notebooks Get SSDs


2005

article:- Sun, SPARC and Solaris Highlights and Lowlights in 2005

December 2005 - Sun Announces OpenSPARC Market Initiatives

November 2005 - Sun's New 8 Way SPARC Chip

October 2005 - Sun's New Flagship SPARC Servers

September 2005 - Sun Launches its Fastest SPARC Servers

August 2005 - SPARC Notebook Maker Tadpole is Acquired


August 2005 - StorageTek Stockholders Approve Acquisition by Sun

Despite the evidence of Sun's many past failures to become a leader in the storage market many analysts (including myself) thought this might just work.

Earlier, in May 2004, I had published an article suggesting how Sun might be able to turn itself around coupling its OS and server technology with SSDs - in an article called - Why Sun Should Acquire a Solid State Disk Company.

As we now know, 4 years later (in 2009), the StorageTek acquisition was a waste of money because Sun failed to re-engineer itself as a storage market leader.


July 2005 - FalconStor Announces Support for Solaris 10

June 2005 - Sun Acquires StorageTek

It looked like a clever move by Sun, whose earlier go it alone storage forays had mostly ended as expensive mistakes. But Sun paid too much and did too little, too late in the fastest growing part of the storage market - SSDs.

May 2005 - Sun and Dell Tie for 3rd Place in Server Revenue

April 2005 - Red Hat Kicks Out Sun in Italian Bank

March 2005 - Solaris 10 Passes One Million Licenses Milestone

February 2005 - Sun's Knockoff Ads Delusional - Says Article

January 2005 - BiTMICRO's E-DiskSAN Certified Solaris Ready


2004

article:- Sun, SPARC and Solaris Highlights and Lowlights in 2004

December 2004 - HP Gambles Another $3 Billion on Itanium 2

November 2004 - Sun Missed the Server Revenue Growth Wave

October 2004 - Sun to Resell Solid State Disks from TMS

September 2004 - HP's Sun Eclipse Program

August 2004 - New Sun Fire Speaks SPARC Solaris and Windows

July 2004 - Intransa Ships 125th IP SAN to SPARC Solaris Customer

June 2004 - Fujitsu's 1.9 GHz SPARC Processor

For many years Sun didn't know how to design the fastest SPARC processors, and Fujitsu didn't know how to market them. Eventually the dynamic duo did some collaborative sounding partnerships. But by then most server buyers had lost interest.

May 2004 - IDC Says Sun Lost Out to Linux and Intel

April 2004 -Sun Gains $1.6 billion from Dispute with Microsoft

March 2004 - NatureTech Launches Dual 1.28GHz UltraSPARC Portable

February 2004 - Mellanox, InfiniBand and Sun

January 1-14, 2004 - UltraSPARC notebook breaks the $2,000 barrier

January 15-31, 2004 - Force Announces Design Win for SPARC SBCs


2003

article:- the Top #10 Most Important SPARC Manufacturers in 2003

December 2003 - Sun Reaffirms Commitment to Solaris x86


November 2003 - Tadpole Launches UltraSPARC-IIIi Notebook

November 18, 2003 - Tadpole Computer announced VIPER, an UltraSPARC-IIIi powered notebook with integrated wireless capabilities.

VIPER provides more than 2x the performance of other SPARC notebooks. It supports up to 2GB memory, up to 80GB disk storage, DVD/CD-RW drives, 10/100 Ethernet, a PCCard slot, 3x USB 2.0 ports, external video, printer port, PS/2 ports and audio in/out connections.

It comes pre-installed with Solaris 9, GNOME 2.0, StarOffice 7.0, Evolution 1.4 and Mozilla 1.4. Starting price is $5,995.

Editor's comments:- the SPARC notebook market, started by Tadpole in 1992, outlived workstations and servers as a multi-vendor SPARC IHV market. You can read its history here.


October 2003 - Sun Anticipates $1 Billion Loss for Quarter

September 1-14, 2003 - Gartner Nixes Linux on the Desktop

September 15 - 30, 2003 - Themis Servers Get 1.2 GHz UltraSPARC III

August 2003 - General Dynamics Selects Tadpole's SPARC Notebooks

July 2003 - Sun's Annual Revenue Declined 8.5%

June 2003 - Appeal Court Says Microsoft Doesn't Have to Distribute Java

By this time it was clear that Microsoft was going to overtake Sun in the server OS market, so there was no need to pander to a rival on its way down.

May 2003 - Sun Signs up as Distributor for Red Hat Linux ,

April - 2003 - Sun's SPARC Servers Dip below $3,000

April - 2003 - Force Introduces Highest Performance VMEbus SPARC SBC

March 2003 - Sun and Topspin Collaborate on InfiniBand

March 2003 - Sun's 900MHz UltraSparc III Servers Prone to Crash

February 2003 - Sun Launches 1.2GHz SPARC Servers

February 2003 - Imperial Launches Terabyte Class 1 million IOPS SSD

January 2003 - CompactTCA - New Telco Architecture

January 2003 - UltraSPARC Notebooks Break the $3,000 Barrier


2002

article:- the Top #10 Most Important SPARC Manufacturers in 2002

December 2002 - Red Hat to Launch Workstation Client

December 2002 - Sun Embraces InfiniBand Technology

November - week 1, week 2, weeks 3-4,

October 2002 - Mark Johnston to reCycle Tadpole's SPARC business

week 2, week 3, week 4,

September - weeks 1 - 2a, weeks 2b - 3a, weeks 3b - 4,

August 2001 - Sun is #1 in Unix Storage Market


August 2001 - Sun Launches x86 Linux Systems

The Sun LX50 was the first general purpose Linux-based server from Sun.

This product line arose from Sun's acquisition of Cobalt Networks, a low cost Linux server oem, the year before.

Sun's tortuous history with Linux and OS's on Intel architecture hardware was recounted in my article Remember Xenix? - No Not the Warrior Princess.


weeks 3 - 4,

July - week 1,

July 2002 - Who's Going to Buy Sun Microsystems? (The Company)

week 3, week 4,

June - week 1, week 2, week 3,
week 4,

May - week 1,
May 2002 - week 2 - Sun's Workstation Shipments Declined 27%,
weeks 3 - 4,

April 2002 - New 3GHz hotSPARC Server
week 2, week 3, week 4,

March - week 1
March 2002 - Fujitsu Announces "DESTINATION SOLARIS" Program
week 3, week 4,

February - week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4,

January - weeks 1 - 2, week 3, week 4, week 5,


2001

December - week 1 , weeks 2 - 4


November week 1, week 2, weeks 3 to 4,

October - weeks 1 - 2


October 2001 - Sun Confirms Q3 Revenue Decreased 43%

October 18, 2001 - Sun Microsystems, Inc., (NASDAQ: SUNW) a leading provider of hardware, software and services that power enterprises and network computing, today reported results for the first quarter of fiscal year 2002 which ended September 30, 2001.

Revenues for the first quarter were $2.861 billion, a year-over-year decrease of 43%.

...Later:- in the aftermath of 9/11 - all the big server and storage companies announced collapsing revenues.

It's interesting to read how this was reported at the time. Unlike the rest of the market - Sun didn't bounce back to its previous market eminence.


September - week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4,

August - weeks 3 - 4,


August 2001 - Sun is #1 in Unix Storage Market

Gartner Dataquest officially released its independent numbers on U.S. information storage units ranking Sun Microsystems Inc. atop the UNIX® storage market for the 3rd year in a row, confirming that Sun is No. 1 in worldwide revenue of the consolidated UNIX storage market.

At the time I said - "this press release from Sun actually gives you a very misleading idea of Sun's true market position in storage today..."

Sun was #1 for storage in a captive Unix market which mostly consisted of Sun servers.

I inserted a chart which showed that EMC's revenue in RAID systems was nearly 5x as high as that of Sun.


July 2001 - weeks 1 - 2,

July 2001 - Sun's Q4 Revenue Declined 20%

Although the dotcom crash had already hit the Intel server market 3 quarters earlier - Sun had continued reporting revenue growth.

It seemed at one time that the company was invulnerable. The 1st shock was in April 2000 - when Sun reported that its revenue growth was flat. But this (in July 2000) was the 1st time in Sun's history it had reported negative revenue growth.

Later we were to hear reports of channel stuffing. Sun had delayed its own bad news by allegedly shipping stock to VARs who didn't realize that Sun's meteoric rise was to permanently end.

To save costs Sun shut down its plants and offices during the 1st week in July 2001.

In the absence of Sun news - I published a daily spoof blog - Diary of a Workaholic Sun Partners Program Manager.

week 3,

June - week 1, weeks 2 & 3,
June 2001 - Tatung Announces Small Form Factor UltraSPARC III Server ,

Tatung had been an active SPARC oem for 10 years. This was one of the last SPARC product announcements from the company.

May - week 1, week 2,
May 2000 - Free Standards Group founded (later Linux Foundation),
week 4,

April - week 1, week 2,
April 2001 - Sun's Revenue Growth Hits Brick Wall,
week 4,

March - week 1
March 2001 - Sun is World's Fastest Growing Server Company, Says IDC
week 3, week 4,

February - week 1, week 2, weeks 3 & 4,

January - weeks 1 - 2, week 3, week 4,


2000

December 2000 - Force Launches ultraSPARC-IIe-based VME SBC
December 2000 - IBM's Growth Outpaces Sun's in Midrange Unix Servers
December 2000 - SunWorld Online Relaunches as UNIX Insider

November - week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4,

October 2000 - Atmel Ships SPARC Processor for Space Applications
week 2, week 3, week 4,

September - week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4,

August - weeks 1 - 2, week 3, week 4,

July - Sun reports $5 Billion quarter ,

This was Sun's finest hour. Revenue was 33% up year on year.

By a strange twist of fate - in the same month - we ran 2 other news headlines which, now in retrospect, warned that all of this would end soon.

Red Hat Leads Global Linux Use in New Surveys

IBM, Intel, Microsoft Eclipse Sun and Oracle with World's Fastest Commercial Server Cluster

And in the next quarter - Intel issued a warning that a recession was about to hit the PC and server market.

June - week 1, week 2, week 3,
June 2000 - Sun Maintains Commanding Lead in the UNIX Server Market ,

May - week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4

April - week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4,

March - week 1, week 2
March 2000 - VA Linux Systems Acquires TruSolutions
week 4

February - week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4

January - week 2, week 3, week 4

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In April 2007 - Sun liked this SPARC History article so much that they copied some of the text to use on their 25 Year Celebration site. But they didn't include an attribution. Naughty Sun!
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