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Sun’s Unwired Motherboard Plans

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Sun Microsystems is researching ways to make massive supercomputers even faster, including wireless connections between CPU and memory.

The shortcomings of multi-core were discussed in the November 2008 issue of IEEE Spectrum. The publication of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, quoted scientists from Sandia National Labs, who felt that multi-core processors were detrimental to high performance computing in certain usage cases.

Sun (NASDAQ: JAVA) has several solutions up its sleeve, not the least of which is a project it’s been working on for the last four year years it calls Proximity Communications. The work is part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project, the same Defense Department group that gave us the Internet.

Proximity Communication will allow a CPU to communicate with memory without using the multiple layers of copper wires in the motherboard that run between the CPU and memory sockets. Instead, a pair of metal plates that don’t quite touch will send and receive the signal back and forth.

This would reduce significant latency between memory and the CPU, a problem made worse in the era of multi-core processors because more cores are trying to access the memory through the same bus. It also eliminates latency because there is no need to charge up the data and copper wires for transmission. Instead, it’s transmitted at light speed between the two targets.

Sun expects to make a major presentation on its Proximity Communications milestones at the Electronic Components and Technology Conference (ECTC) in May 2009 in San Diego. Bjorn Andersson, marketing director of high performance computing products at Sun, said it will still be a few years before Proximity Communication is viable, but it will shave off quite a bit of latency.

“We can’t eliminate latency completely but it’s one or two orders of magnitude,” he told “Latency is the charge to send data over the wire to communicate. Proximity Communication avoids that completely. It comes down to light speed if you do it that way.”

The communications research is part of a DARPA project, so Andersson said he could not say if it would be licensed to other vendors or used elsewhere, such as on network controllers, which are also prone to latency.

A potential game changer

If Sun can get this to work, it could be very game-changing, said semiconductor analyst Nathan Brookwood. “The reason I say that is if you look at a processor today, typically those chips have half of their area devoted to logic and the other half devoted to caches,” he said.

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