With new Sparc systems, Oracle begins shift to single chip architecture

Oracle is expected to gradually converge its two Unix server families onto its own Sparc processor design

Oracle has announced a batch of servers based on new Sparc processors and in the process has begun an expected shift toward converging its two families of Unix servers onto a single chip architecture.

Oracle sells two lines of Unix servers, the T-series, based on the Sparc processors it designs in-house, and the higher-end M-series, which have traditionally been built by Fujitsu and resold by Oracle, and which run on Fujitsu's Sparc64 chips.

On Tuesday, along with a clutch of new T-series boxes, Oracle announced the first M-series server designed by Oracle and based on one of its own Sparc processors, rather than Fujitsu's Sparc64 chip. "This is all Oracle IP," said Marshall Choy, Oracle's director of systems solutions and business planning, in an interview.

Observers have long expected Oracle to converge the two systems lines onto a single chip architecture, a move that could reduce its development costs for both hardware and software, at a time when sales from its hardware business are declining.

"This is really the first instance of them delivering on this promise," said industry analyst Nathan Brookwood of Insight64.

Oracle announced five new T-series servers on Tuesday. They're mid-range systems based on its new Sparc T5 processor, which doubles the core count over the Sparc T4, from eight cores to 16, and boosts the clock-speed, I/O bandwidth and memory bandwidth.

They include a single-socket blade system, and rackmount servers with two, four and eight processor sockets. Oracle says they'll give a big performance boost for databases, Java middleware and business applications.

The new M-series server, called the M5-32, is a high-end SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) machine that Oracle will position against IBM's Power 795 Unix server, its biggest. It supports up to 32TB of system memory -- a huge amount -- and runs on a new, six-core Oracle processor called the Sparc M5, which shares the same core as the Sparc T5 chip also announced Tuesday.

The difference between the T5 and M5 processors is that Oracle has removed some of the cores on the M5, which aren't as useful in SMP systems, and added a much bigger Level 2 cache memory -- six times bigger, Choy said -- and other features suited to such high-end machines.

It's a similar strategy that Intel pursues with its x86 cores, Brookwood noted, which is to develop one processor core and adjust the cores per chip, cache size and other features to suit larger and smaller servers.

Oracle says its new servers will be highly competitive with IBM's Power systems on a cost and performance basis, and it plans to release benchmark results Tuesday intended to show that.

Despite the release of the M-series server on Tuesday, Choy would not confirm whether Oracle plans to move all or most of its SMP systems over to its own Sparc chip. "We're focused on the systems we're announcing on Tuesday," he said.

But analysts say it's been Oracle's plan for a long time. "They've been saying they would do this for years," Brookwood said.

It fits with Oracle's strategy of designing entire systems, from the chips to the operating system, database and applications, in-house. Oracle argues it can build higher-performance systems this way, though it also ties customers to an all-Oracle stack of hardware and software.

"I think it's the right strategy for them; what they're really selling is integration," said analyst Joe Clabby, president of Clabby Analytics.

But he also wondered how much longer it will be economically viable for Oracle to keep developing its own microprocessors. Sales of its Unix hardware have been declining, and last quarter were at about half the level they were when Oracle bought Sun Microsystems three years ago.

"They just came off a bad quarter, how much longer can they keep investing in this?" Clabby asked.

Brookwood said the cost savings from moving to a single chip design will enable Oracle to invest in future Sparc generations. "Don't forget too that Oracle still sells a lot of software wrapped around these systems, the same as HP does around Itanium systems," he said.

The new systems announced Tuesday will start to be rolled out this month, Marshall said. Pricing wasn't immediately available.

The servers are all general-purpose machines, and Oracle isn't saying yet when the T5 will find its way into its pre-integrated systems, such as the Exadata Database machine and Sparc SuperCluster.

For now at least, Oracle continues to resell Fujitsu's SMP servers, but the question is whether it will introduce new models in the future or design its own, as it did with the M5-32.

Oracle also continues to sell servers based on x86 processors, though CEO Larry Ellison has made it clear he's not interested in the high-volume server business.

Ellison is due to announce the new servers along with John Fowler, the head of Oracle's systems business, during an event at Oracle's headquarters Tuesday afternoon.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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