Friday, November 16, 2018

The First SPARC Workstation... and The Future

[Sun Microsystems Logo]

The First SPARC Workstation... and the Future


When former Sun Microsystems employees gather for reunions, stories formerly only known to a small group of original inventors will often become known. One such story was the creation of the first SPARC based desktop workstation. This story was referenced in an IEEE publication from 2014.

[Sign outside Xerox Palo Alto Research Center]

The Workstation and Xerox Parc

Xerox had a research center in Palo Alto California, which was decades ahead of its time. Xerox, a corporation built around document processing, conceptualized the modern computer, and inspired an industry.

[Alto I Computer System, Xerox (PARC), US, 1973, courtesy flickr]

A tale of inspiration

Sun co-founder and chief hardware designer Andy Bechtolsheim recalls spending a lot of time at Xerox Parc as an unpaid consultant during his graduate student days. These days, the position might have been considered an internship, but in those more informal times, Bechtolsheim recalls, it was more like an invitation to hang around, and he did so as much as possible, mostly testing chip design tools in development. At the time, Parc researchers did their jobs using Parc technology—like the Alto computer, with its bitmapped display and Ethernet connectivity. “That’s where the idea of building a personal workstation for engineers and scientists originated," said Bechtolsheim. "It was obvious even as a grad student that the world needed such a product, particularly for engineers who wanted to do chip design or board design.”


The First Workstations

He wanted one for himself, but Xerox wasn’t turning it into a product for engineers. So he built it himself using mostly off-the-shelf parts. That attempt turned into the Sun workstation. 
Sun co-founder Vinod Khosla reported that when he met Bechtolsheim and expressed interest in the technology, Bechtolsheim offered it to him at his standard licensing fee—US $10 000. Khosla said he told Bechtolsheim “I want you, not your technology. I don’t want the golden egg, I want the goose.”
For its first official week of existence in 1982, Sun Microsystems was "Sun Workstation." That was until the founders figured out that nobody knew what a workstation was.
The very first Sun workstations delivered to a major customer in May 1982 didn’t run Unix; instead, they were used as IBM 360 terminal emulators.

[Sun 100 desktop workstation spotted at Heinz Nixdorf Museums Forum in Paderborn, Germany]

Sun-1 Motorola 68000 Workstations

The very first workstations did not include graphics, but included an embedded UNIX Operating System. The Sun 1 "workstation was based on the Stanford University SUN workstation designed by Andy Bechtolsheim (advised by Vaughan Pratt and Forrest Baskett), a graduate student and co-founder of Sun Microsystems."

[Sun 2/50 diskless workstation]

 Sun-2 Motorola 68010 Workstations

The Sun-2 "series of UNIX workstations and servers was launched by Sun Microsystems in November 1983.[1] As the name suggests, the Sun-2 represented the second generation of Sun systems, superseding the original Sun-1 series. The Sun-2 series used a 10 MHz Motorola 68010 microprocessor with a proprietary Sun-2 Memory Management Unit (MMU), which enabled it to be the first Sun architecture to run a full virtual memory UNIX implementation, SunOS 1.0, based on 4.1BSD."
[A Sun 3/60 workstation with disk and tape]

Sun-3 Motorola 68020 & 68030 Workstations

The Sun-3 is a series of UNIX computer workstations and servers produced by Sun Microsystems, launched on September 9, 1985.[1] The Sun-3 series are VMEbus-based systems similar to some of the earlier Sun-2 series, but using the Motorola 68020 microprocessor, in combination with the Motorola 68881 floating-point co-processor (optional on the Sun 3/50) and a proprietary Sun MMU.

[SPARC Logo, courtesy SPARC International]

 SPARC Workstations Considered

The development project that created a workstation based on the SPARC processor only happened because Bechtolsheim went rogue. Bechtolsheim tells the story: “The company was building Motorola-processor based workstations, and Motorola wasn’t keeping up CPU development. Meanwhile, Bill Joy convinced the company that we should use the SPARC chip. By ‘86 Sun was shipping its first SPARC server. By ‘87, there was a discussion—should we put this into a workstation. But the VP of engineering thought this was lunatic, too much risk. Sun at that point was a public company. As a public company, people get instantaneously conservative and make decisions the way Digital Equipment Corp. would make a decision, which wasn’t quick.
But Bechtolsheim thought the risk was worth it, in part because he was worried about what Steve Jobs was doing with his then-new company, Next. “I knew what was going on at Next, because I had a friend who worked there, and I grew concerned that they were building a better product. They were using the [Motorola] 68000 [microprocessor], so I wanted to have a product with a faster CPU, because in terms of cost/performance there’s nothing better than a faster chip."
[SPARCStation 1+]

The First SPARC Workstation

So Bechtolsheim informally split from Sun in 1987, starting a separate corporation called Unisun. The moniker was intended to give the impression that the new business was going to go after the university market, and not Sun's regular business customers, but, said Bechtolsheim, it was always intended to be a general purpose workstation.
Khosla, who by then had left Sun to join venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, funded the venture. "We agreed to fund Andy to essentially rip-off Sun technology,” Khosla recalls.  “We told the board we were going to do this whether they liked it or not, but they could buy back at cost," that is, purchase the company and its intellectual property for the amount of Kleiner's investment.
 “Three or six months after we got going Sun decided it should indeed be a Sun product line, and it came out in 1989; it was Sun’s best selling workstation.”


The irony of history is sometimes hard to get past. One can sometimes have the most advanced hardware and software solutions, but not know how to market it for economic advantage... thus was the case for Xerox. Wrapping off-the-shelf products with a clean software design with built in Ethernet Interfaces resulted in the creation of an entirely new class of computing systems and ultimately The Internet. With the advent of The Internet, The Market transitioned from Workstations to Servers... ironically, often by stacking Sun Workstation "pizza boxes" on a shelf in a rack, connecting their embedded Ethernet cards. Sun used to say "The Network Is The Computer", and they were right.

[Oracle Logo, Courtesy Oracle Corporation]


Today, the highest performing general purpose microprocessor on the market continues to be SPARC. Oracle, a software company, now owns a proverbial "Golden Egg", with Fujitsu being the other. June 2016 marked the time when Oracle resumed shipping commodity competitive systems based upon  the SPARC S7. September 2017, Oracle cut SPARC "Core" Team employees. SPARC firmware continues to roll out, providing the most secure microprocessor platform on the market.

SPARC Tomorrow

Also in September 2017, once again released the fastest processor on the market - the SPARC M8. As 2020 approaches, the market looks forward to what will most likely be the fastest processor on the market, the SPARC M8+. With SPARC stunning performance, the market debates where the proverbial "Goose" still lives.

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