Oracle Unveils Powerful New SPARC Servers, Chips

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2013-03-26

Oracle Unveils Powerful New SPARC Servers, Chips

Oracle is rolling out new midrange and high-end servers powered by new SPARC processors that officials say are the fastest in the world.

At a Webcast event at the software giant's Redwood Shores, Calif., headquarters, CEO Larry Ellison boasted that the SPARC T5 and M5 chips and the servers that they power are proof points that his company's controversial $7.4 billion acquisition of Sun Microsystems three years ago is paying dividends.

"When Oracle bought Sun, a lot of people said, 'Gee, the SPARC [processor] was a laggard. It will never catch up,'" Ellison said to a roomful of analysts, journalists and employees. "We did catch up, and we passed [competitors]."

Oracle engineers were able to double the performance of the SPARC chips every year for the past there years, he said, and the results are the T5 and M5 and the systems they power—the midrange T5s systems (with two, four and eight sockets) and the high-end M5s servers (with 16 and 32 sockets). The systems outperform larger, more expensive Power servers from IBM running a range of enterprise applications, from databases to Java to Java middleware, all while using less power and taking up less space, Ellison said. In addition, the new servers offer as much as a tenfold performance improvement over Oracle's last-generation systems.

In particular, he pointed to the T5-8, an eight-socket system that Oracle claims is the fastest single system in the world, with price/performance advantages of 2.5 to 12 times that of particular IBM Power systems.

"There's not a single computer that can run a database faster," Ellison said.

Ellison and John Fowler, Oracle's executive vice president of systems, touted the engineering environment within the company that enables system developers to work closely with their software counterparts to develop servers that are optimized to run Oracle's enterprise applications, an idea of "engineered together" that company officials have been trumpeting since the Sun acquisition. Fowler, speaking at the event, called it a "lifestyle" within Oracle.

They have argued that having software optimized for the systems, and a Solaris operating system that can handle the demands of such systems, creates tightly integrated hardware-and-software packages that offer significantly more performance and cost-effectiveness than other systems. Over the past few years, Oracle has rolled out such systems as the Exadata database appliance and Exalogic Elastic Cloud product that officials have said are proof of this idea.

During his talk, Ellison said Oracle, with an eye toward continuing the ability to double the chip performance every year, will begin moving more software functions onto the silicon, enabling the chips to keep up with the demand for greater speed and efficiency. Oracle already does it with such tasks as encryption and decryption, he said.

"We ultimately are going to put database and Java accelerators right onto the chip," Ellison said. "We showed you, you can do this [with encryption and decryption]. Why can't you do it with the database?"

The result will be continued performance improvements, he said.

"We believe this will give us the ability to double our performance again and again and again," Ellison said. "We are a software company that also does silicon, and a silicon company that also does software."

Along with the new SPARC systems, Oracle launched two new optimized solutions, one for the company's database software and another for its WebLogic offering.

With the new SPARC T5 and M5 chips, Oracle was able to double the number of cores (from eight to 16), threads and cache over the previous T4s, as well as ramp up the frequency, according to Oracle. Now the T5-8 system offers 128 cores and more than 1,000 threads, while the M5-32 holds 192 cores, runs 1,536 threads and has up to 32 terabytes of memory.


Oracle Unveils Powerful new SPARC Servers, Chips

Oracle's new hardware rollout comes a week after the company released relatively disappointing quarterly financial numbers, including hardware revenues that fell 23 percent from the same period in 2011, from $869 million to $671 million. At the same time, Ellison—who in December 2012 had predicted that the hardware business would stop its fall by February and begin growing again by May—said that things would not start getting better until August.

Oracle is still in the process of shedding the lower-margin systems and will begin focusing more on the higher-end, Solaris-based engineered systems, he said during the March 20 call. President Mark Hurd also noted that Oracle is selling a lot of 1/8th rack systems, though pricing for the servers is less than other systems, putting pressure on the bottom line.

However, some analysts said Oracle is under the same pressure as other systems makers, with enterprises increasingly looking to the cloud to run much of their businesses. "On the hardware side they're facing the same headwinds that everybody in the hardware industry is facing, as you get more consolidation and commoditization of hardware," Pacific Crest analyst Brendan Barnicle said during an interview on CNBC after the earnings.

Oracle also is being dogged by an overall decline in demand in the Unix server market. Analysts at IDC noted that in the fourth quarter of 2012, Unix server revenues fell 24.1 percent, to $2.6 billion, the sixth consecutive quarter of revenue declines, a trend that hit all major Unix server vendors. Still, the Unix market represented 17.6 percent of server revenues in the quarter.

Analysts over the past three years have questioned whether it made sense for Oracle to keep Sun's hardware business, not only because it forced Oracle into a market segment it didn't know, but also because it brought it into direct competition with such longtime partners as Hewlett-Packard.

However, both Ellison and Fowler touted the results of the engineered systems, and said the performance and cost efficiencies the servers will bring will be difficult for businesses to ignore. In addition, Fowler, who came over to Oracle from Sun, noted that when combined with the entry-level T4 SPARC/Solaris systems introduced last year, Oracle is now armed with a complete portfolio.

"The SPARC family is now completely revamped since we joined Oracle," Fowler said.


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