Oracle Gives Details of Low-Power 'Sonoma' SPARC Chip

At the Hot Chips show, Oracle officials reportedly unveiled plans for an upcoming SPARC chip that will be aimed at scale-out environments.

data center

Oracle reportedly is readying a low-cost SPARC processor aimed at scale-out computing environments like those run by cloud service providers and dominated by systems powered by Intel's x86 processors.

At the Hot Chips 2015 show this week in Cupertino, Calif., Basant Vinaik, senior principal engineer of CPU and I/O verification for Oracle, laid out the technical details of the low-end processor that is designed for highly dense data centers and which essentially is based on the SPARC M7 processors the software giant unveiled at the same show last year.

According to slides from the show published by The Register news site, the new chip—code-named Sonoma—offers eight four-generation SPARC S4 cores as well as PCIe Gen 3 and InfiniBand integrated into the silicon. The 20-nanometer chip also comes with direct-attached DDR4 memory (two controllers) and such software features as real-time application data integrity, concurrent memory masking and database query offload engines. There is a shared 8MB Level 3 cache, shared L2 catches and an individual L1 cache.

Sonoma also will come with an integrated cryptographic unit that offers support for a wide range of crypto instructions, including AES, Camellia, MDS and RSA, and security and encryption across Oracle's software stack.

By comparison, the SPARC M7 processor—which also is a 20nm chip—comes with up to 32 SPARC S4 cores 2TB of DDR4 memory, PCIe Gen 3, and up to 64MB of shared and contained memory. It also was the vendor's first 20nm chip, following the 28nm M6 processor.

When Oracle bought Sun Microsystems for $7.4 billion in 2010, most industry experts suspected that what interested the software maker most was Sun's Java technology and Solaris operating system, and that then-CEO Larry Ellison would somehow rid himself of Sun's hardware business, which had been struggling against the powerful and less-expensive x86 server chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

However, Ellison—now the company's executive chairman and CTO, was adamant that he intended not only to keep the server and chip business, but invest in it. Over the past several years, Oracle has rolled out a range of what officials call "engineered systems," which are powered by the SPARC chips and are optimized to run an array of the vendor's enterprise applications. Oracle also offers such high-end systems and a portfolio of enterprise servers running on Intel's Xeon processors.

All of these engineered systems are aimed at scale-up, big-iron environments, offering customers iron racks filled with high-end infrastructure and servers running on powerful processors. The new highly integrated Sonoma processor will put Oracle into even tighter competition with Intel, which owns more than 95 percent of the server chip space, and in a booming part of the market—scale-out environments.

Cloud service providers—including such tech giants as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon—as well as Web hosting firms, telecommunications companies and others are looking for low-power, highly dense systems that enable them to run their workloads while keeping power, cooling and space costs down. Dell officials, who earlier this week announced a new business—Dell Scalable Solutions—aimed at creating semi-custom offerings for those organizations that are huge but the next level down from the Googles and Facebooks of the world said that the market is growing three times faster than the traditional x86 server space at about 14 percent a year. It's about a $6 billion total addressable market.

Whether Oracle can cut into Intel's dominance in the space with the Sonoma SPARC chip remains to be seen, but it's a fast-growing part of a mature server market where the software maker sees an opportunity.