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Looking Back at 3rd Party SPARC Technology Firsts

March 2002 article by Zsolt Kerekes, editor
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Zsolt Kerekes - Publisher
Zsolt Kerekes is editor and publisher
of the SPARC Product Directory

This article chronicles the history of 3rd party innovations in the SPARC systems market. One of the benefits which Sun received from opening up SPARC technology (before effectively closing it up again later) is that other SPARC companies pioneered new ways of using it, and brought better solutions to users faster, than if you had to wait for Sun.

  • first multiprocessor SPARC systems:- Solbourne.
Solbourne made its own SPARC chips and workstations in the 1980's, and was the first SPARC company to be driven out of business by Sun's better and more aggressive marketing.
Tadpole is still a world leader in SPARC portables and has extended its SPARC product line into rackmounts and upgrades, partly as a result of acquiring Cycle Computer.
  • first Intel Architecture coprocessor on SBus running Microsoft operating system and applications in a SunOS window:- Puzzle Systems.
The company was put out of business when Sun launched its own similar product.
  • first SPARC chip upgrades - Weitek.
Weitek's (x2 clocked processors fitted into original Sun sockets in the SPARCstation 2). Weitek, which also designed some Intel coprocessor accelerators, regarded this as a "one-off" market opportunity, and didn't do any follow on SPARC products.
  • first fault tolerant SPARC servers:- Integrated Micro Products (IMP).
IMP was acquired by Sun Microsystems.
First cPCI SPARC SBC launched 1997.

In 2001 Force was the world's largest supplier of cPCI processors, shipping far more than even Sun.
  • first 64 bit SPARC chips:- HAL Computer.
HAL was a business disaster for its parent company Fujitsu, with much hype and good products, but poor market development. But Fujitsu still develops and uses SPARC64 technology. Fujitsu's independently designed SPARC servers did not have the same cache problems which plagued Sun in 2001. If they were better at marketing, they could have gained enormous market share from this opportunity. Instead IBM and HP were the main beneficiaries of nervous customers who switched applications away from Sun.
  • first environmentally friendly SPARC motherboard upgrades:- Cycle Computer.
Cycle was started by Mark Johnston, one of the founders of the SPARC workstation company Axil Computer. Cycle's original concept was that you could re-use your old RAM, disk and other peripherals when you upgraded your motherboard, and could mix and match old as well as new technology, instead of throwing them away. Cycle was acquired by Tadpole.
Auspex changed its processors to Pentium technology and is still active in the NAS market.
  • first mainframe type backplane for SPARC systems:- Cray Research.
Cray licensed the technology from its SuperServer 6400 to co-deveoper Sun, which used it in the SPARC center 2000. Cray didn't seem to know how to market anything outside its core customer base, meanwhile Sun used the new technology to expand updwards into the datacenter, also killing off most of Cray's business along the way. Cray went back to its own proprietary technology, and is now a Sun VAR.
  • first SPARC array processors:- Meiko.
Meiko was one of the first companies to provide affordable supercomputers for scientific modelling, but within a few years their products had been overtaken by systems which offered the same processing power, with the added convenience of standard operating systems and a wider range of I/O. The company just eventually fizzled out.
in June 2002, Themis used an InfiniBand connection to connect a rugged external PCI slot expansion box to its range of Rugged Enterprise Servers
  • first multi-core SPARC chips:- Sun
in April 2004, Sun started shipping servers with its UltraSPARC IV processors, the first SPARC chips to include two full processors cores.

...So next time you hear someone from Sun claim that they're the stars in the Unix RISC market, just remember that without all that SPARC dark matter, there probably wouldn't be a SPARC market today at all. Sun's corporate memory about the important role of VARs in its early development is also conveniently forgetful nowadays.
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