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Sun's worst enemy: Sun PR

I don't know what "outbound marketing" is, but I do know that technology companies rely on their PR departments to explain the benefits of their technologies to a skeptical public. With that in mind I thought Sun's Monday announcement of the UltraSPARC T1 might provide an interesting test of how well their PR group did their job this time around.

Specifically I typed Sun T1 into google's news search engine at about noon on Tuesday and looked at the first six hits this turned up.

Number one (actually in a tie with an image only headline from gameshout.com) was a story by Luke Meredith on SearchDataCenter.com headlined Sun releases UltraSPARC T1 chip

Much of it is a rehash of what was in the press kit with the mandatory quotes from the usual suspects, but consider these three bits:

  1. The 90-nanometer chip, which Sun built from scratch, features 32 threads -- eight cores featuring four threads apiece -- and minimal memory latency that the company said will drastically reduce heat output while increasing traffic flow.

  2. The memory was put on the processor, allowing data to be transferred into the chip as fast as it can be processed. Sun believes weaving the processor into the system design in such a manner drastically improves throughput.

  3. "It's probably a solution Sun has to market aggressively. Power has gotten a lot of attention, and Sun needs to communicate with its user base to make sure they're on board," Lock said. "If Sun can beat the heads of its ISVs [about T1], then that's something that would go over very well with customer base."

The first one mis-states both the Sun/TI relationship and the reason for the double whammee of better performance with power savings offered by the CMT approach; the second one mis-states a key design element; and the third one comes from a pundit apparently unaware that the T1 is 100% binary compatible with the existing code base.

This report has about 550 words, from the headline on down most of it is either wrong or uninformed.

The second report, by Jack Ryan of the Post-Chronicle, is entitled Sun Sets Hope On New 'Green' UltraSPARC T1 Chip. It's only about 440 words, is labelled as "compiled from wire reports," and fairly represents the press release. Here's a sample:

The T1 is the first microprocessor design to build four memory controllers, transferring data between memory and the processing cores to ensure that data is transmitted into the chip as fast as it can be processed, according to Papadopoulos.

That doesn't make sense, but only because somebody cut out a few words (e.g., "and a system bus directly into the CPU silicon") and is actually a lot better than most.

Hit number three was by John Pallatto of ewaeek under the headline Sun Claims UltraSPARC T1 CPU Speedy, Eco-Friendly

This one illustrates the process of taking a press release, adding "claims" and "said" in the right places, and calling it a report. Here, for example, is his lead-in:

Sun Microsystems Inc. Monday introduced the UltraSPARC T1 multi-threading CPU, formerly code-named Niagara, that it claims is not only fast, but is good for the environment.

That's because UltraSPARC T1 with "CoolThreads" technology uses less than 70 watts of power, at a time when most multicore processors including Intel Corp.'s Xeon and IBM's Power processor lines use about 150 watts, according to Sun officials.

Aside from the fact that there aren't any actual multi-core Xeons (putting two cores on one socket is just a PR con) this equates power use on eight cores to power use on two and fundamentally misinterprets what Niagara, and Chip Multi-threading (CMT), are really about. Most of the power and performance gains aren't coming from putting multiple cores on a chip, they're coming from moving a lot of "motherboard" electronics onto the chip and integrating them directly with the processor cores. In other words it isn't that Niagara moves less data, it's that Niagara moves it shorter distances against lower resistances.

(By the way, I read through the top 20 google hits on this, and not a single writer or quoted pundit got this right; so I'm picking on this report only because it happened to come second in the google text title list.)

Consider, however, this paragraph from the same report:

Sun also claims that the technology has the potential to cut the number of installed Web services in data centers around the world by 50 percent, causing a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from oil- and coal-fueled power that would be the equivalent to planting 1 million acres of trees.

Except for the "claims" insert that's straight from the press release too, so lets hope it's the IM half -:) ... and go check out what happens when the writer diverges a bit from the source to summarise independently:

Most chips consume just slightly less of the amount of power when they are sitting idle as when they are running at peak capacity, Tremblay said. "Total heat dissipated barely goes down when the processor is inactive," he noted. "It was disappointing that the idle time is not more power-efficient." As a result, a design goal for the T1 was to size the power supply in a way that better accounted for the peaks and valleys of processors throughput.


Hit number four was by the staff of CXOtoday under the headline Sun Introduces UltraSPARC T1 Processor

Again, a "claims" and "said" revision of stuff from the press release featuring paragraphs like this one:

The processor, which features Sun's own CoolThreads chip multi-threading technology is said to use less than 70 watts of energy and can eliminate the number of Web servers in the world by half, slash power requirements and even reduce carbon dioxide emissions, according to Sun.

This report is by-lined "Mumbai" so it may not seem fair to draw attention to language problems, but bear with me - I'll show you a bit later on why it's important to notice that a language problem exists - so try to figure out this bit:

With four memory controllers on the UltraSPARC T1 allow for faster routing of data between the processing cores and the memory. Also, an internal communications tasks rack on the chip, which reduces metal movement across the chip and lesser memory latency allow for increased traffic flow and saved energy, according to Sun.

Hit number five was a PC-Pro story by Matt Whipp headlined Sun goes green with T1

This was easily the cleanest of the top twenty reports I read - for example:

The processor formerly known as Niagara has today been named the UltraSPARC T1, boasting less than half the power consumption - 70W - of the average 150W hoovered up by most chips.

It's also pretty powerful. Sun's President Jonathan Schwartz described in his blog that 'Niagara systems take the concept of dual-core processors ... and goes to an absolute extreme - building eight cores, each capable of running four jobs simultaneously (four threads), onto a single chip. Doing the math, we'll be delivering a 32-way chip, running 9.6GHz, which sips power. On performance-per-watt metrics, we believe we'll be a factor of five better than what IBM just announced.'

With the exception of the core count omission in the comparison between the power used by Niagara's eight cores and the P4's single core, this report does a pretty good job of setting out the facts. It relies on the press release, but mostly quotes the bits in that press release quoting Schwartz's web log rather than the release's own unique content.

And that's an important distinction because the rest of what's in the main press release is the source of most of the errors in the reports. It has, for example, language errors:

research shows that UltraSPARC T1 processor performance could eliminate the number of Web servers in the world by half, slashing power requirements and having the same effect in reducing carbon dioxide emissions as planting one million acres of trees

Put just "eliminate the number of Web servers in" in google's news search and you get six hits with 224 related articles (as of noon Tuesday).

I don't know who wrote that report from Mumbai appearing in CXOtoday -but it's clear from the second paragraph quoted above that the person has some problems with English and could not reasonably be expected to cope well with stuff like this in a press release originating with a high technology company headquartered in California.

The press release is full of stuff like this - either poor wording, poor editing, or half digested ideas yielding misrepresentations. Here's the release's list of the UltraSPARC T1's "Firsts"

Breakthroughs Unique in the UltraSPARC T1 Processor:

If you look critically at each one of those and know something about Niagara, you can understand what they wanted to say - but almost nothing is fully correct as written and a lot of what's wrong resonates with the implicit assumptions naturally made by the uninformed to produce the errors we saw in what the press (or least this tiny sample of it) wrote.

It's not just that there are some real breakthroughs Unique in the language there, it's that a lot of this directly or indirectly misrepresents the product. For example the line "Because each individual UltraSPARC T1 core is simpler, it generates less heat -- using less than 70 watts" should lead the logical reader to conclude that an eight core Niagara would need around 420 Watts.

I didn't see anyone who explicitly did the arithmetic, but here's what gameshout.com said in the report google placed in the top icon spot:

The new microprocessor only uses 70 watts of power which is nearly 50 percent of the energy used with competitor chip companies.

And since that's dead wrong it brings me back to the question I started with: I don't know what an outbound marketing director does, but apparently neither proof reading nor technical knowledge are required.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specialising in Unix and Unix-related management issues.