Oracle With SuperCluster Looks to Keep Sun Users From IBM, HP

As IBM and HP look to grab concerned Sun SPARC users, Oracle makes aggressive move to keep them in the fold.

Oracle, with the unveiling Sept. 26 of its high-end SuperCluster system powered by its new T4 SPARC chip, is looking to hang on to an installed base of some 50,000 SPARC customers who are being heavily courted by competitors, particularly IBM.

During an event at the company's Redwood Shores, Calif., campus, CEO Larry Ellison and John Fowler, executive vice president of systems for the software giant, introduced the massive SuperCluster, a general-purpose system that they said offers 33 percent more price/performance that IBM's largest Power servers and more than twice the price/performance of an Itanium-based Integrity server from Hewlett-Packard.

The SuperCluster also brings in capabilities of Oracle's existing Exadata database system and Exalogic cloud-in-a-box offering, both of which are powered by x86 chips from Intel. However, powering the SuperCluster is Oracle's eight-core T4 chip, which Ellison and Fowler said offers five times the performance of the current 16-core T3. In an interview with eWEEK after the event, Fowler noted that the T4 is hitting the market several months earlier than expected, and that Oracle already is about a year ahead of schedule in the development of the 28nm T5.

The SuperCluster will run the current Solaris 10 operating system or the new Solaris 11, and will run any applications that current SPARC customers are running. Such capabilities will help convince the SPARC customers inherited when Oracle bought Sun Microsystems early last year for $7.4 billion to stay with Oracle, despite pressure from IBM to migrate to that vendor's Power and mainframe systems.

"We wanted to give them a smooth upgrade path," Ellison said. "It's a big, fast computer."

From the time Oracle first announced in 2009 it was buying Sun, there were questions whether the software giant would stay with hardware. Ellison and other executives said their intention was to not only keep the Sun hardware business, but increase investments in it, with the idea of optimizing the systems to run Oracle software.

The Exadata, Exalogic and, now, SuperCluster systems are the first of such systems, and while they will run third-party enterprise applications, Oracle software performs best of the hardware.

Some analysts after the event said they were unsure whether the SuperCluster and T4 would be enough to keep slow the defection of Sun customers. Richard Fichera, an analyst with Forrester, said the new system should give customers something to think about.

"This is a major milestone for Oracle and its server community," Fichera said in a blog post. "The virtues of the SuperCluster aside, it is the first tangible product of their commitments to a renewed investment in SPARC processor technology, and as such, it looks impressive."

The technology improves the single-threaded performance while retaining the "highly threaded throughput-oriented architecture of the T-series," he said.

"But most importantly, it is early, laying to rest the ghosts of previous disasters at Sun and Oracle, validating not only Oracle's intentions but their ability to execute with this new stream of CPU architectures," Fichera wrote. "My take is that this announcement goes a long way toward supporting a claim that SPARC is a viable platform for future investment. Committed SPARC/Solaris users can breathe a sigh of relief and shelve their migration plans with a multi-year promise of increases in both CPU and systems performance."

Fowler said in the eWEEK interview that Oracle has more tightly-integrated hardware and software bundles in the works, and that the company's investment in the SPARC/Solaris architecture is solid.

"We are moving down a long-term growth path," he said.

Fowler said there is plenty of room to grow, and that while retaining the current Sun customers is critical, Oracle's intention with the SuperCluster is to grow its user base. Throughout the SuperCluster announcement, Ellison and Fowler compared the system's performance and capabilities with those of IBM's Power systems.

In addition, while there are about 50,000 Sun hardware customers, Oracle has more than 370,000 software customers, giving the company a large circle of potential hardware users, Fowler said. He noted that Oracle has more than 50 users beta testing the T4-4 system and showing significant interest in the offering.

Retaining all the Sun customers won't be easy, however. In the three-horse race that is the Unix server market, IBM has been seen as the most stable of the vendors. Oracle's acquisition of Sun made many users nervous, and HP business has been hindered by Oracle's decision in March to end software development for Intel's Itanium platform, which forms the backbone of HP's high-end server portfolio.

HP, which shares about 140,000 customers with Oracle-most of whom run Oracle database software on HP Integrity servers-is suing Oracle, saying the vendor violated an agreement to support products used by their joint customers. Analysts have said that the dispute between the two companies is benefiting IBM.

"Rather than providing what Oracle likely hoped would be a competitive edge for its Sun hardware solutions, the company's battle with HP has instead given IBM an unprecedented opportunity to move on HP/Oracle accounts with migration programs designed to remove forever the discomfort and dangers of warring vendors putting mission-critical systems at risk," Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group, said in a June 22 report.

IBM executives for several years have been touting the success they've had in bringing HP and Oracle Unix users to their Power portfolio. Market research firm IDC in August said IBM in the second had grown its Unix revenues by 15 and its market share by 6 percent, while both HP and Oracle lost share.

In a statement, IBM also said that in the second quarter, its Power Systems unit grabbed 334 customers from competitors, including 210 from Oracle and 110 from HP. IBM officials said that since 2006, when they first introduced a formal migration program to entice customers to move to IBM systems, the company has taken 7,210 server and storage customers from rivals.