Pulling Back The Curtain At Sun Labs - InformationWeek

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Pulling Back The Curtain At Sun Labs

Sun is working on faster switches, more efficient servers, new programming languages, and 3-D virtual workplaces.

Sun Microsystems put the spotlight on its next-generation technology and showed off research projects that ranged from faster switches and more efficient servers to 3-D virtual workplaces in an open house for analysts and reporters.

The computer maker on Thursday held its annual Sun Labs open house and brought out the researchers and scientists responsible for developing the innovative products the company needs to survive in a commodity market.

Robert Sproull, director of Sun Labs, made clear that Sun has big ambitions. "General purpose computers have to be rethought."

Among the projects close to leaving the labs is Project Crossbow, an evolution of the networking stack in Sun's open source Solaris operating system. Crossbow takes advantage of Sun's 10-Gbps network interface card to help build a multithreaded computer optimized for network-facing applications.

Crossbow prioritizes incoming data, so the most important tasks get more of the bandwidth and processing power. A network administrator would pre-configure the intelligence in software called Flow Classifier, said Sunay Tripathi, a Solaris engineer.

The purpose for Crossbow is to get more uses out of a single server, Tripathi said. For example, a single box could handle voice and data traffic over an IP network, with Crossbow dedicating more resources to processing voice packets to avoid latency problems. A network appliance with Crossbow could be partitioned to hold a firewall, DNS server, and load balancer.

Crossbow is scheduled to eventually make its way into Sun's entire line of servers, with the first computer using it shipping in July, Tripathi said. The technology will be available as part of Solaris in the fall.

Project Sedna is Sun's next-generation switch for storage-area networks or high-performance computing. Sedna is about developing future data center interconnects that scale to thousands of compute nodes and to bandwidths of tens of terabits per second, said Hans Eberle, an engineer on the project.

Key to the scalability is a new switching fabric that contains multiple chips that act as one. The way that's done is through the use of capacitors that handle communications between the chips in order to coordinate the way they take incoming data and send it to the proper outbound ports.

Chips within switching fabrics today are soldered to a motherboard and communicate over copper tracers. The maximum number of input/output ports is 48 -- 24 in and 24 out -- and the maximum amount of bits that can travel through the ports is 10 Gbps. To handle more ports and increase the bandwidth, a network of switches has to be built.

Sun's use of capacitators has the potential of increasing the number of ports to a maximum of 4,096, with a total bandwidth of 40 Tbps. The faster movement of data means a higher performing storage system, or server cluster used in high-performance computing.

Sun Labs has built a prototype of the new architecture and is now working on scaling the system to its maximum, Eberle said. There's no timetable for when the innovation would be incorporated in products.

Among the projects that would wow even a nontechnical person is Sun's MPK20 virtual workplace. Sun has built a client called Project Wonderland that handles the graphics rendering and provides the controls for moving an avatar through the make-believe world.

While MPK20 isn't a physical office, it contains many real-world collaboration features. A company employee could have their own office in MPK20 and hold meetings with other workers. Within the virtual office, presentations could be shown on a wall, along with documents and spreadsheets that could be modified by the group. Basically, just about any office application can be brought into the virtual world.

Another feature is voice communications, which is handled through headphones and a microphone. The voice capabilities are designed to simulate the real world, so a person, for example, leaving a meeting would hear the voices of the others slowly fade. Walk toward two people talking, and the volume of the voices increase.

MPK20 could be ready for deployment within Sun in six months, said engineer Nicole Yankelovich. Sun would use the application internally before releasing it outside the company. The odd name stands for Sun's Menlo Park (Calif.) Campus, which has 19 physical buildings, and now a 20th that's virtual.

MPK20 is built on top of the new version of Sun's open source Darkstar gaming server. While Wonderland does the graphics rendering, Darkstar handles everything else, such as load balancing, managing game state, and voice communications. For storing avatars and other game objects, Darkstar uses the Berkeley DB database, another open source project.

The Darkstar upgrade is scheduled for release in the summer, project director Karl Haberl said. A major feature in the new version is the ability to tie the servers in a cluster for handling more users. Load-balancing tools in the servers make it possible to move workloads around to avoid overtaxing any one machine.

In the area of programming languages, Sun's most important contribution remains Java. The company, however, is working on a new language for writing scientific programs for high-performance computing.

Fortress is unique in that it uses mathematical syntax, which is more easily understood by developers of scientific applications. Such software is built to handle huge computations, so developers of these programs are comfortable with math.

In addition, coding errors with Fortress can be more easily found when applications are being compiled, and the language is developed specifically for building software for large computing platforms, which may have tens of thousands of processors and petabytes of memory, said Christine Flood, a member of the Fortress technical staff. A reference implementation of the language is available on Sun's Web site.

As these projects show, Sun remains as focused on software as it is on hardware, believing that it must be innovative in both to bring to potential customers computers and appliances that are unique in the marketplace.

In a meeting last month with reporters, Sun Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz said, "R&D is key when you make money from a commodity. You need to spend enormous amounts of money to differentiate."

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