Oracle provides Sparc road map, but questions remain

Solaris 11 is coming next year, but Oracle still isn't talking about specific chip plans

Oracle has sketched out a five-year road map for Sun's Sparc-based servers, hoping to reassure customers about the future of the platform and reverse a pattern of declining sales.

John Fowler, the former Sun executive who runs Oracle's systems business, laid out the plans in a webcast from Oracle's headquarters Tuesday morning. In an interview beforehand, he also confirmed reports that Oracle has stopped designing x86-based servers with chips from Advanced Micro Devices, and has standardized on Intel processors.

Oracle will release regular updates to Sun's Sparc processors for at least the next five years, and "at least double application performance every other year" on Sparc-based systems, Fowler said. Sparc servers will scale from 32 cores and 4TB of memory today, to 128 cores and 64TB of memory by 2015, he said.

Fowler also announced that Solaris 11, the next big update to Sun's Solaris OS, will ship next year. It will include "major updates across almost every level of the stack," he said, including elements of Sun's Project Crossbow network virtualization technology. Solaris 11 will scale to "tens of terabytes of memory and thousands of processor threads," he said.

It was important for Oracle to articulate a road map for Sun's Sparc-based systems, sales of which have fallen sharply amid the uncertainty around Oracle's acquisition of Sun. Oracle has said from the start it will continue to develop Sparc but it has been light on the details.

Even after Tuesday some questions remained. Oracle has two families of Sparc processors -- the multi-threaded Ultrasparc chips that it develops in-house for its T series servers, and the Sparc64 chips manufactured by Fujitsu and sold in Oracle's high-end M series servers.

Fowler didn't address the two chip lines specifically, referring only to the future of Sparc in general. One analyst said Oracle may eventually use the Ultrasparc chips across both server families, the M series and the T series.

"If I look in my tea leaves, I would say over the next few years all of those systems -- the T series and the M series -- are likely to be built around the Sparc chips Oracle is designing in-house," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64.

Such a move could reduce Oracle's development costs and give it complete control over the design of its servers. It could produce variations of the Ultrasparc chip, using different interconnects and cache sizes, for example, to make them suitable for the M series servers, Brookwood said.

Asked before the webcast about specific plans for the two chip families, Fowler said he would be talking "generically about Sparc." The two platforms are based on the same underlying architecture and can run the exact same software, so customers "aren't focused on that," he said.

It's also unclear if the Ultrasparc T3 processor, which will double the core count of the existing T2 Plus, will ship by the end of the year, as Oracle had said it would. In the interview, Fowler said he could no longer confirm the release will be this year.

Still, analysts briefed on Oracle's hardware plans said they are more confident now of Sparc's future. Oracle has about the same number of engineers working on Sparc as Sun had before the acquisition, and the company is more focused on results, Brookwood said.

IDC analyst Jean Bozman said Oracle clearly is investing in the future of Sparc and Solaris. She expects a point upgrade to Solaris 10 before the end of the year, and for Oracle to provide a more detailed systems road map at Oracle OpenWorld next month.

In the interview, Fowler confirmed earlier reports that Oracle has stopped developing servers based on AMD chips and is standardizing, for now at least, on Intel processors.

Oracle's x86 strategy is not to offer "every size, shape and color" of server, Fowler said. Oracle will continue to sell two-socket x86 servers that customers can buy on a standalone basis, but its main goal is to engineer systems for larger, "mission-critical" environments such as those that use Oracle's clustering software.

"When you look at our strategy to have a core, enterprise platform and do the integration and value-add on top of that, having every possible variation of processor and system is not as important," Fowler said. It is possible the company will use AMD chips again in the future, he said.

Oracle's big-picture strategy with Sun is unchanged from before. The company will continue to sell standalone servers and storage systems that can run applications from other vendors, but its biggest focus is building systems that tightly integrate Sun and Oracle technologies.

By owning the servers and all layers of the software stack, Oracle argues, it can build systems that perform better and are easier to manage than those of its rivals. The "ultimate expression" of that is the Exadata system for OLTP and data warehousing that Sun and Oracle announced last year, Fowler said.

That product is based on x86 processors and Linux, however, and Oracle still hasn't talked about a similar machine that uses Sparc processors and Solaris.

Oracle is also vying for a bigger piece of the virtualization market. The company has products for virtualizing both x86 and Sparc-based servers, and plans to "rationalize" the management tools so customers can manage both environments from a single tool, Fowler said.

To that end, IDC expects Oracle to merge Sun's Ops Center system management software and Oracle's Enterprise Manager software into a single product by 2012.

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James Niccolai

IDG News Service
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