June 10, 2005

IDG’s Anthes reviews Sun Labs

Innovation By: ams

Recently, Sun has been running an intriguing double-page spread print campaign with various of their technical luminaries standing in a field, Hands-Across-America style. Some depictions are a bit disingenuous (Bill Joy), some are not as flattering as they could be, and some, indeed, are eyebrow-raising “Oh yeah, I guess so-and-so really is still there!”

This has intersected with Gary Anthe’s latest from-the-labs report in ComputerWorld. I believe he’s written several of the other lab profiles we’ve pointed to in the past. The following review is courtesy of ACM’s TechNews clipping service. In the extended entry, we’ve excerpted a bit on Vipul Gupta’s work with miniaturizing emedded SSL web servers using ECC…

Sun’s R&D Spectrum Computerworld (06/06/05) P. 29; Anthes, Gary H. Plus sidebar on supercomputing

Sun Microsystems employs some 200 scientists with more than $80 million to spend annually on a wide variety of next-generation computing projects, including a possible 4-PFLOP supercomputer and a Web server the size of a quarter. Sun’s Proximity I/O technology, for example, will enable computer chips to fully maximize their potential computing power so that top-tier Internet switches can be built at dimensions and costs similar to PCs; currently, Internet switches cost millions of dollars and fill entire rooms, but Proximity I/O eliminates wire interconnects and the data-transfer bottlenecks associated with them. “When processors went from 10MHz to 3GHz, they didn’t become 30 times faster because the bandwidth didn’t increase by 30 times; it increased by two or three times,” notes Sun Labs researcher Robert Drost. Sun leveraged the potential of Proximity I/O to win a DARPA bid to design and build the next generation of supercomputer architecture. Sun, IBM, and Cray won the three $50 million contracts, and one project will be chosen for actual production by 2009. Proximity I/O would enable massively parallel computation between large numbers of processors, lifting the sustained speeds of that machine above 1PFLOP, possibly scaling to 4PFLOPS. On the other end of the computing spectrum, Sun has developed secure, coin-size Web servers that could be deployed in battlefield sensors, on personal medical devices, or RFID tags used for confidential situations, and Sun’s elliptic-curve cryptography (ECC) is key to this effort because it dramatically reduces computing requirements compared to RSA cryptography while maintaining similar security.


Sun Labs is working on computers at the other end of the spectrum as well, and it claims to have developed the world’s smallest secure Web server. Code-named Sizzle, the server is the size of a quarter and is intended to go inside home appliances, personal medical devices, sensors and the like. It’s a battery-powered, wireless device with an eight-bit processor, 128KB of flash memory and 4KB of RAM.

Others have built tiny Web servers, but what distinguishes Sizzle is its use of elliptic-curve cryptography (ECC), which is more efficient than RSA cryptography and hence more suitable for compute-challenged processors.

Users of the industry-standard RSA have moved to 1,024-bit encryption keys and will eventually have to move to 2,048 bits to ensure that the keys aren’t broken. Every doubling of key length requires an increase of computer power by a factor of eight.

But ECC at comparable strengths is 10 times faster than 1,024-bit RSA keys and 38 times faster than 2,048-bit RSA keys, says Vipul Gupta, a senior engineer at Sun Labs. “The next generation of Internet devices, such as sensors, are expected to be even less capable than phones, and these devices just don’t have the horsepower for RSA,” he says.

Gupta has worked with the Internet Engineering Task Force to get ECC integrated into the Secure Sockets Layer encryption protocol, just as RSA has been integrated with it. Now, he says, developers can write software that interoperates with Sizzle as easily as with any other secure server. Applications include battlefield sensors, personal medical devices and radio frequency identification tags for confidential situations.

Gupta says ECC may find applications in large servers as well. A big e-commerce company such as Amazon.com Inc. could get by with a quarter to half as many servers if it used ECC rather than RSA, he says.

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