Sun displays developing technologies in new labs

Sun Microsystems opened up The Sun Labs Open House yesterday, spotlighting projects in areas ranging from wireless chip-to-chip communications to Web 2.0 security.


Sun Microsystems opened up The Sun Labs Open House yesterday, spotlighting projects in areas ranging from wireless chip-to-chip communications to Web 2.0 security.

The Sun Labs Open House at Sun facilities gives demonstrations on technologies still in development. One room even featured a slot car track embedded with real-time Java sensor technology.

Fostering communications between different Sun engineers is one intent of the open house, although customers, press and students could be found roaming the different Sun buildings to check out exhibits and presentations.

"One of our constant efforts is technology transfer, which is getting other people at Sun to understand what we're doing," so plans can be formulated based on what each group is up to, said Robert Sproull, vice president and Sun fellow at Sun Microsystems Laboratories.

One project drawing a lot of attention was the Proximity Communication, which seeks to overcome limitations of Moore's Law. This famed principle stipulates that the number of transistors per chip doubles every 24 months at the same level of investment. In development for several years now, Proximity Communication involves placing silicon parts close to each other and transmitting signals between them sans wires.

This can increase bandwidth, make chips replaceable, and enable smaller chips, according to Sun. But there still are challenges, such as heat dissipation, said Robert Drost, director and distinguished engineer in Sun Labs. "[The project] has a very high risk and high reward," he said.

Proximity Communication represents major progress if Sun can pull it off, according to analyst Nathan Brookwood, founder of Insight64.

"Today, trying to build a system out of multiple chips really imposes tremendous performance constraints," Brookwood said. "If they can achieve this, if they can take several chips and make them behave like one large chip from an electrical and signal timing perspective, then that's a huge step forward."

Doing so would save power and enable the building of much larger caches, for example, Brookwood said.

Sun officials differed on when Proximity Communication technology might actually arrive in products. Drost would not comment on when this might happen except to say there would be some "packaging-type announcements" in the next year. But Sproull said it would be years, not months, before Proximity Communication would be in products.

"We haven't even gotten the first prototype working," he said.

Sun's SPARC central processing unit platform is a likely destination for Proximity Communication. "You would get the most value out of this in something like a SPARC processor," Drost said.

The Web 2.0 security project, meanwhile, would provide server-to-user and user-to-server authentication, unlike secure sockets layer, which is limited to authenticating a user to a server. "If you really want to spread stronger trust models, especially in the e-commerce world, it would be very nice to have mutual authentication," Sproull said.

Another effort, Project Squawk, is intended to produce a small Java virtual machine. Squawk would extend Java down to microcontroller-powered devices, which run on as little as 8K of flash memory and 1K of RAM. Even a toaster is a possible destination. The VM runs in the absence of an operating system.

"Today, we're able to run Java on fairly large servers down to workstations and phones. I would like to see Java running on microcontrollers," said Eric Arseneau, a Sun principal investigator.

With Squawk running on multiple varieties of microcontrollers, embedded application developers could be provided with a uniform set of tools to build applications regardless of which microcontroller is present, Arseneau said. The intention is to offer Squawk technology via open source, he said.

Among the other projects on display, many of which have been detailed before, were:

  • Fortress, a high-performance computing language intended as a Fortran replacement

  • DReaM, which is Sun's digital rights management initiative
  • SPOTs (Small Programmable Object Technology), providing Java-programmable wireless sensors
  • Celeste, presenting a new model for massively scalable storage
  • Project Pulsar, which ports the embedded OpenSolaris operating system to the PowerPC platform
  • MPK20, providing a Sun virtual workplace and featuring collaboration and 3D capabilities. It is more of a gaming environment, Sproull said.
  • Project Live, for system virtualisation
  • Sedna, presenting a next-generation switch

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