Oracle Takes Aim at x86 Workloads With New SPARC Chip

The vendor launches the SPARC S7 chip, a less-powerful version of the M7 that officials say will challenge Intel in scale-out and cloud environments.

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Oracle officials want to bring the vendor's SPARC chip architectures downstream and into workloads that currently are run on systems powered by Intel's x86 processors.

At the Oracle OpenWorld 2016 show in Brazil June 29, company executives introduced the new SPARC S7, a less-powerful and lower-cost version of Oracle's SPARC M7 chip that is designed to run the sort of scale-out private and hybrid cloud environments that are driving many of the sales of Intel's chips and can compete on both performance and price.

The new chip can compete with Intel on a per-core price basis, and will bring more capabilities that accede what the competition can offer, according to Marshall Choy, vice president product management at Oracle.

"We're basically expanding the existing M7 platform," Choy told eWEEK, adding that the new chip and the new systems based on it "enable commodity x86 economics for scale-out and cloud, but also [offer] different capabilities around security and analytics. … This part of the market from the SPARC perspective, from an economic standpoint, has been out of reach."

Intel owns more than 95 percent of the worldwide server chip space, but competitors see an opportunity to chip away at that market dominance as server demand shifts to more scale-out and hyperscale environments for private, public and hybrid clouds and organizations continue to push for an alternative to Intel. ARM and some of its chip partners, including Qualcomm, Applied Micro, Cavium and Advanced Micro Devices, are pushing low-power server systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) based on the ARM architecture, while IBM sees an opportunity through its OpenPower Foundation consortium.

ARM got a boost this month when Fujitsu announced that the successor to the K supercomputer in Japan—an exascale system dubbed Post-K that is due to go online in 2020—will use custom ARM-based processors rather than Fujitsu's SPARC64 processors, which power the current K system.

Oracle also is looking to expand its customer base by offering the new SPARC S7 chips and new servers that officials said will provide 1.6 times better core efficiency and 10 times faster data analytics than x86 chips.

Oracle initially talked about such a lower-power SPARC processor at the Hot Chips 2015 show in August, laying out some of the technical details of what officials at the time called "Project Sonoma." Like the SPARC M7, the S7 is based on a 20-nanometer manufacturing process. However, where the M7 has up to 32 processor cores and runs at up to 4.13GHz, the S7 comes with eight cores and up to 4.27GHz. The new chip also comes with Oracle's "software in silicon" features such as Silicon Secured Memory and data analytics accelerators that help fuel higher per-core efficiency and enable customers to run a broad array of applications—such as analytics and in-memory databases—on a SPARC platform but at commodity price points.

At the event in Brazil, Oracle officials also announced new systems based on the SPARC S7. Among those were the S7-2 and S7-2L. The S7-2 is a 1U (1.75-inch) system that can run on one or two chips, while the S7-2L is a 2U (3.5-inch) system running on two processors.

Oracle also introduced the MiniCluster S7-2, a pared-down version of the company's SuperCluster designed to bring the benefits of the engineered systems to midmarket customers. According to officials, the MiniCluster is aimed at such uses as database consolidation, multi-tenant application support, remote- and branch-office computing needs, and test and development environments, and to do so at prices lower than commodity offerings.

In line with Oracle's aggressive move into the cloud computing space, the company also is offering the SPARC architecture as a cloud service that can give businesses a secure, SPARC-based platform in the cloud.

Oracle, one of the world's largest enterprise software makers, got into the hardware business when it bought Sun Microsystems for $7.4 billion in 2010, inheriting its SPARC chips and server business. The company has used the technology to create highly engineered systems that include Oracle applications optimized for the hardware.

However, businesses are continuing to migrate their workloads to x86 servers. IDC analysts noted that in the first quarter, revenue for x86 servers increased 2.6 percent year-over-year, to $10.6 billion, while revenue for non-x86 systems—including RISC servers like those powered by SPARC—declined 28.7 percent, to $1.8 billion. In its most recent quarter, Oracle reported that its hardware business fell 7 percent.