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Sun's Speed Demon


Sun Microsystems' Marc Tremblay has helped design chips that speed processing—and reduce power consumption

At age 46, Marc Tremblay isn't a young Silicon Valley hotshot anymore. But you wouldn't know it from the Porsche 911 he pilots around the hairpin turns of the Santa Cruz Mountains. His vanity plate reads "MAJC"—the name of the breakthrough microprocessor he designed in 1995. Although he wasn't thinking about energy conservation when he developed MAJC, his unusual approach to chip design is now producing major energy savings for data-center owners. Like the other three innovators profiled in this special report, Tremblay made his mark by defying conventional wisdom.

Tremblay is a top chip designer at Sun Microsystems (JAVA) with 130 patents to his name. A decade ago the industry had a single focus: making the digital brains of computers process data ever faster. But Tremblay saw a fatal flaw in that strategy. The faster chips ran, the hotter they got, and eventually they'd be too hot. So he designed a multicore chip, which has several processors on a single sliver of silicon. Each runs slower, cooler, and more efficiently than one processor that tries to do all the work. (Think of a train being pulled up a mountain by four modern diesel locomotives instead of one old steam engine.) Tremblay also enabled each core to perform several tasks at once.

Answering the Power Problem

Chip breakthroughs often take a long time to make it to market. So it wasn't until December, 2005, that Sun's Niagara server computers, based on Tremblay's designs, went on sale. Each Niagara chip consumed just 70 watts of power, about one-third that of a conventional microprocessor. "It makes a lot of applications run faster and run better, and it saves us energy," says Sun customer Norm Fjeldheim, chief information officer for Qualcomm (QCOM). A typical medium-sized data center uses about $5 million worth of electricity per year, so the savings from switching servers could be sizable.

Tremblay has moved on to his next big thing, the Rock processor. This design has 16 cores, double the Niagara chip. Sun expects the servers to accomplish four times as much work as servers using conventional processors, while using just twice the power. They're due out in mid-2009. "Rock is my personal answer to the power problem," says Tremblay.

Other companies now offer multicore chips, but Tremblay has the satisfaction of knowing he got there first. So what's an energy-conscious techie doing driving a gas-guzzling Porsche? Rethinking his priorities. He has a deposit down on a sporty electric car, the Fisker Karma.

Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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