Oracle says it still fully supports the Sparc processor

The Sparc processor is not going quietly into the night. Just how much play it still has remains a mystery.

My blog post on the Oracle/Sun merger got quite a bit of attention, and a few folks from Oracle took exception to my portrayal of Sparc dying on the vine and a thin roadmap. After a few conversations, I have a better picture of things, and I was wrong.

Marshall Choy, senior director of product management for Optimized Solutions at Oracle, noted that in the years following the acquisition Oracle has taken five processors to market in a four-year time frame. That covers the T3 to M6 lines.

"The speed and rate of innovation has increased from the Sun days, not just Sun processor deliveries but the timeliness of those deliveries to market, and meeting and beating the performance forecast," he told me. Choy said Oracle has doubled performance with each subsequent generation of processor.

Oracle has two processor lines, the T-line and M-line. Both are the same core technology, it's just they target different size platforms. The T-line process is a 16-core chip with eight threads per core, definitely well beyond Intel's Xeons, at least for threads. The M-line is a 12-core chip, also with eight threads per core.

The only physical difference between the two is cache. The T5 has 8MB of shared L3 cache while the M6 has 48MB of shared cache. After that, the difference is target platforms. The T-line is for one- through eight-socket systems, while the M-line is for systems with up to 32 sockets.

The two are converging into the M7 line, which was discussed at the Hot Chips conference last August at Stanford University. The show is an overlooked gem, with all of the major chip vendors showing off their latest inventions but nowhere near as much press coverage as IDF or Computex.

The M7 is a monster chip, no two ways about it. It will have 32 Sparc cores with eight threads per core, shared L2 data and instruction caches, 64MB of shared and partitioned L3 cache, support for DDR4 with two to three times the memory bandwidth over prior generations and use of up to 2TB per physical processor.

Where things get interesting is the software on silicon, doing functions that would normally be difficult in software on the processor instead. There are three areas, Choy said.

The first is data protection, with a feature called real-time Application Data Integrity, which are functions on the processor to avoid buffer overflow errors from poorly written software or a malicious attack. Given how many exploits and hacks are from buffer overflows, that's a big fix.

The second is things to leverage database functionality in the chip to accelerate database queries and in-memory queries. Makes sense. Oracle is a database company and it's going to sell SuperClusters running the Oracle database. Why not optimize their chips for their database? IBM did the same thing with DB2 and Power processors.

Lastly they are working on the storage side to provide in-line decompression from tape storage in a single stage instead of multiple stages, which will speed up querying compressed data. Oracle picked up a significant tape storage business with Sun, the StorageTek line, and still sells it.

The real question on my mind was customer wins. Choy acknowledged that a lot of Sparc sales are existing Sparc customers replacing aging hardware, but also insisted that the company "continues to pursue and win competitive takeouts, both from RISC competitors and x86." When I asked for names, I was told they could not reveal them because it was the quiet period before announcing earnings.

IDC has a partial picture of the Sun installed base, as best it can piece together. Peter Rutten, research manager for servers, said in 2012, Oracle's entire installed base was 938,447 units, and in 2013, it was 720,959 units, a 23.2% loss in just one year, but he added he could not break this down by which server products.

A more telling stat was that in Q1 2003, Sun shipped 66,000 Sparc units, most of them Sun Fire servers, the commodity line. In Q3 of 2014, that number was down to no more than 7,000 units in the quarter. But he notes that while Oracle's unit sales are down, the devices it sells are very high-end and are fully configured and integrated with compute, storage, networking and software completely integrated.

"The market for integrated systems is growing rapidly and Oracle’s Engineered Systems are playing a unique role in it because it controls so much of the software that it can do a really good job synchronizing hardware and software," he said via email.

Choy also defended Solaris, saying there have been multiple release with significant updates, particularly Release 11.2, released in April 2014. That version added an integrated hypervisor, an image packaging system for patching and updates, unified archives for rapid provisioning of apps and services, software defined networking and support for OpenStack cloud provisioning in Solaris, the latter of which Choy said customers really liked.

And if that wasn't enough, Oracle will host the IEEE SPARC RISC Milestone Commemoration Ceremony event celebrating 25 years of the Sparc processor this Friday at its offices. Speakers include David Patterson, the UC Berkeley computer science professor who devised the RISC architecture and its name.

Nathan Brookwood, a veteran chip analyst in the Silicon Valley, said Oracle continues to make massive investments in future versions of Sparc. "Whether or not they are making money on it is highly questionable, but Larry is patient. Investors are in it for the fast return and some are in it for the longer term. I would put Ellison in the latter category. If he thinks it will produce for Oracle in the long term he will invest in it, which makes him unusual in that regard," he said.

Brookwood knows a lot of folks from the Sun days and said that there has been no let-up in R&D, and it has even increased. "They have been on a steadier more predictable cadence in the three or four years since they were acquired than they ever were in the Sun days," he said.

"They've done more hiring in the last 2 years than many previous periods. Other guys are laying off," added Brookwood. "There's not a lot of turnover. [John] Fowler [executive vice president of systems who came over from Sun] and the whole Sparc and system development team have stayed in place. People I knew 10 years ago are still there."

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