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SPARC CPU names - a user's guide to what they mean, who makes them, and where you'll find them.

SPARC, microSPARC, TurboSPARC, SuperSPARC, HyperSPARC, UltraSPARC, SPARC64...

This article by Zsolt Kerekes was first published in the 1996 edition of the SPARC Product Directory.

... SPARC history
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See also:- Surviving the Solaris x86 Wars
Branding Strategies in the SSD Market
How fast can your SSD run backwards?
the Last Market Report on Sun Compatible OEMs

Knowing something about the processor in your computer can tell you something useful about what it can do, relative to other systems.

Just as you don't have have to be an engineer to appreciate that engine size, number of valves and the type of fuel (or battery) give you clues about the capability of your automobile, in the same way SPARC processor names tell you something about the speed or vintage of your computer system.

We know there's confusion about what some of the words connected with "SPARC" actually mean. That's partly because you, as a user, sometimes have to guess the meaning from its context in vendor literature, and also because vendors themselves don't always use the terms consistently. This article is divided into the following sections, which you can read in order if you're interested in following the flow. Alternatively please click to go straight to the subject which interests you.


SPARC versus X86. Why is SPARC nomenclature so confusing?

Most people are familiar with the numbering systems for Intel architecture processors, so why is there more confusion in the relatively smaller world of SPARC systems?

Probably for the following reasons

  • There is no single dominant supplier of SPARC CPU's. Historically, the major SPARC chip manufacturer in any system generation may not have been the same company that was dominant in the earlier one. That's because Sun Microsystems, the largest consumer of SPARC chips, runs a fabless business model. That's not a typo, but means that Sun does not own the semiconductor fabrication plants which manufacture their processor chips. Although Sun designs many (but not all) of the chips used in its computers, the Sun designed chips are actually manufactured by other leading semiconductor companies. For simplicity in this article we're treating all Sun designed chips as being made by Sun Microelectronics (SME). This part of Sun was previously called SPARC Technology Business (STB). Sun Microelectronics also sells SPARC chips and motherboards to other systems oem's.
  • SPARC names give you clues about the architecture of the computer they were designed to work in. Some names tell you that the CPU was optimized for use in single processor, or multi-processor configurations. In the Intel computer world, this is not yet a common distinction. Intel processors are mainly designed for the high volume single processor PC environment, and they get deployed in multi-processor systems by the use of systems interfaces and logic which varies according to system manufacturer.
  • SPARC chips are marketed more by name than by number, and the name of each SPARC chip is uniquely assigned to a single vendor. Imagine the confusion there would be in the Intel world if processors were not labelled by numbers (286, 386, 486 etc) but each had different names. OK since the Pentium, Intel has stopped using numbers, but Intel's competitors still use numbers like 586, 686 which keeps comparisons simple. SPARC vendors add to this confusion by making comparisons with competing products which may be true at a single point in time, but are not universally valid. Because words can be associated with fuzzier concepts than numbers, and it's possible to establish a brand with a name (but not easily with just a number) marketers make all the capital they can from these differences.

    Some examples:-

    SuperSPARC is sometimes faster than HyperSPARC and vice versa. It depends on the clock speeds you use for the comparisons.

    microSPARC systems are sometimes faster than SuperSPARC systems. A 110MHz microSPARC single processor workstation (such as Aries Research Marixx110) will be faster than a 33MHz SuperSPARC based MBus workstation such as an early model of Sun'sSPARCstation 10. The age of the machine and the clock speeds are significant factors.

    TurboSPARC processors are always faster than microSPARC (because the TurboSPARC is a go-faster competing X2 upgrade for microSPARC sockets, but depending on the clock speed it can be slower or faster than HyperSPARC.

  • Sun Microsystems also develops a range of Java chips which are intended for low cost products which have an embedded Java virtual machine. So not every processor from Sun carries a SPARC label. But the JavaStation webtop terminal announced by Sun (October 1996) actually does include a low end 100MHz microSPARC processor.

If you weren't confused before, then maybe you are now. We hope the rest of this article will help you get a clearer picture.


SPARC... What does it mean?

The main things you need to know as a systems specifier are:-

  • "SPARC" was originally an acronym for "Scalable Processor ARChitecture". The name has lived up to its promise. SPARC processors can be found today in computer systems which range from portables (such as Tadpole's SPARCbook) upto supercomputers (such as Sun's Enterprise servers.) Just as significant from a user's point of view is that all these SPARC computers run a single operating system Solaris 2.x. So if your application, or your organization grows it can still be be run viably on a different size computer without necessarily needing a complete rewrite. Competitors might say the same applies for Unix generally, and also for Microsoft's NT. The difference between Solaris and other types of Unix is that Solaris provides binary compatibility for your application whether it's running on your laptop, or on the datacenter server. The main differences between Solaris and NT, are that the performance ceiling for Solaris is higher, and that it's been running in the market longer which reduces the risk for mission critical applications.
  • SPARC is based on an architecture originally developed by Sun Microsystems. SPARC based computers have been around for over 10 years (refer to our SPARC History article if you'd like to see a chronology). Many people who who see the SPARC Product Directory for the first time say they didn't know that so many companies make SPARC based computers.
  • All SPARC processors are RISC type. But not all RISC processors are SPARC. We know there's confusion on this point. SPARC is simply a specific type of RISC processor, just as Intel's Pentium is a specific type of CISC processor. Other types of RISC processor include DEC's Alpha, and Silicon Graphics MIPS. Other types of CISC processor include Motorola's 680X0, and the Zilog Z80.
  • Many chip manufacturers make SPARC processors. Many computer systems companies build SPARC based systems. An independent organization called SPARC International, Inc regulates the licensing of all the SPARC trademarks, and works to ensure that products from different sources are compatible.
  • Has SPARC got a future? As the most commercially successful 64 bit processor family, we obviously think it's got a bright future.

SPARC processors - overview

The table below provides an overview of the popular SPARC processor names which you are likely to see as a user or specifier of SPARC based computers.

data bus

optimised for

typically found in

manufacturer

hyperSPARC

32 bit

multi-processor systems

SPARCstation 20
SPARCplug

Ross Technology

microSPARC

32 bit

single processor systems

SPARCstation 4 and 5
JavaStation

Sun Microelectronics

SPARC64

64 bit

multi-processor systems

HALstation 300

Fujitsu Microelectronics

SPARC power micro-P

32 bit

single processor systems

SPARCstation 2 (as upgrade)

Weitek

Amazingly - some SPARC Resellers still stock this low cost upgrade.

SuperSPARC

32 bit

multi-processor systems

SPARCstation 20

Sun Microelectronics

TurboSPARC

32 bit

single processor systems

CPU-7V

SPARCbook 3TX

SPARCstation 5

Fujitsu Microelectronics

UltraSPARC

64 bit

multi-processor systems

Ultra 2

Ultra Enterprise Servers

Sun Microelectronics

Note:- the list above is intended to be helpful to users of SPARC based computers which run the Solaris operating system. There are other types of SPARC CPU which are less commonly seen in this systems environment.


Dates of introduction and current market status.

Another way of looking at these processors, is by the date of introduction in a commercial system. The tables below shows this information, along with the first commercial system (according to our records) in which they appeared.

first market appearance in end- user systems and model in which introduced

Current market status*.

hyperSPARC

Q1 94 as user installable upgrade for SPARCserver 600MP

Sun dropped this CPU from its systems product line when it introduced the UltraSPARC based systems in Q4 95. ROSS Technology continued the development in terms of speed and performance. These processors will probably be viable as upgrades for old systems. Some companies such as Rave Computer Association were still marketing new workstations based on this technology in Q1 99.

Q4 94 SPARCstation 20

microSPARC

Q4 92 SPARCstation LC "Classic"

Sun dropped the microSPARC from its workstation product line, but used it in the original JavaStation terminal.

SPARC64

Q4 95 HALstations

This is still a current product, although its future development hinges on how much volume can be generated by HAL Computer and Fujitsu-ICL. However, binary compatibility means that HAL's customers would not be affected if they or HAL switched to another 64 bit SPARC processor at any time in the future. Note:- since our original comment 2 years ago SPARC64 has failed to achieve significant volume in the systems market, and the development is being underwritten by Fujitsu as a technology process driver.

SPARC power micro-P

Q3 93 as user installable upgrade for SPARCstation 2 and IPX

Obsolete. However, some resellers may still have some of these left, and it's the lowest cost upgrade for your SPARCstation 2 if you're still using one.

SuperSPARC

Q2 92 SPARCstation 10

Sun has dropped this from its workstation and server product line, but it still appears in some embedded board level products from other vendors. Sun's positioning appears to be that power users should use its 64 bit workstations. Owners of SuperSPARC based systems have an alternative chip level upgrade path from hyperSPARC, which has never looked better.

TurboSPARC

Q2 97 FORCE COMPUTERS CPU-7V

Sun reintroduced its SPARCstation 5 which was given a new lease of life by TurboSPARC. This is an upgrade option for microSPARC based models. It still appears in some current systems, such as Resilience Corp's Resilient, and the SPARCbook 3 from Tadpole Technology

UltraSPARC

Q4 95 Sun Ultra 1 and 2

This is the flagship processor line used in most of Sun's current workstations and servers. Evolutionary improvements including increasing clock speed, more cache, and higher levels of integration to include strategic interfaces will continue for many years.

first market appearance in end- user systems and model in which introduced

Current market status*.

* Current market status - 1996. This is the editor's opinion as an analyst of this market and is not a definitive fact. Other people may look at the same data and reach different conclusions.

This article was first published in the 1996 edition of the SPARC Product Directory.


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