Oracle challenges IBM with 'Sparc Supercluster'

CEO Larry Ellison will be talking up Oracle's hardware efforts again at a launch event Thursday afternoon

Oracle on Thursday stepped up its efforts to rebuild Sun's hardware business, announcing a high-performance clustered database system that could turn up the competitive pressure on rivals IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

Called the Sparc Supercluster, the system can include dozens of rack-mount servers based on Oracle's recently released 16-core Sparc T3 processor, linked in a cluster with high-performance InfiniBand connections, Oracle's Real Application Clusters software and Sun's FlashFire solid-state storage acceleration technology.

CEO Larry Ellison will launch the system Thursday afternoon during an event at Oracle's Silicon Valley headquarters. Mark Hurd, the former HP boss Ellison hired to help run his systems business, will be on hand to talk up that and other new hardware.

The product is for customers who want to deploy a very large, high-performance database on a scale-out Unix cluster. "You can start with a single server and scale to essentially as many servers as you want, as many as you would ever need," said Bob Shimp, Oracle's group vice president for product marketing.

Ellison will also announce a new version of the Exalogic Elastic Cloud, a collection of servers and middleware that it markets as a "cloud in a box." A version based on Intel Xeon processors was launched at OpenWorld in September, and the new model will be the first to use Oracle's own Sparc T3 chips.

Oracle will also release a faster processor for customers of Oracle's M series Unix servers, which are built by Fujitsu. The upgraded Sparc64 VII+ chip doubles the Level 2 cache from the existing part to 12MB and pushes the clock speed to 3GHz, giving a 20 percent performance boost overall, according to Shimp.

Oracle isn't giving a price or a ship date for any of the products yet, but it's boasting that the Sparc Supercluster will give Oracle the top spot on the TPC-C clustered performance benchmark, dislodging IBM's Power 780 system.

A configuration with 108 servers and 3TB of storage was clocked at more than 30 million transactions per minute, or three times that of the IBM system, Shimp said. Oracle's benchmark wasn't listed on the TPC-C website as of Thursday morning, however, so it was unclear if the result had been audited.

IBM played down the achievement. "Oracle's benchmark was driven by linking together an incredible 27 systems -- a highly inefficient approach that is not practical in the real world, but lumped together simply to win a benchmark," an IBM spokesman said.

Oracle will provide pricing and shipping details for the new products "very soon," Shimp said.

Oracle is working hard to build up Sun's hardware business, which suffered during Oracle's long wait to get its Sun acquisition approved by regulators. Despite initial doubts about Oracle's commitment to selling hardware, it has spelled out a five-year road map for Sparc and now seems committed to the platform.

Oracle's strategy is to sell large, pre-configured systems, like the Exalogic Elastic Cloud and its Exadata Database Machine, which it says perform better and are easier to set up than when customers choose their own hardware and software.

Oracle's approach is a valid one but it's unclear yet how many customers will buy into the model, said industry analyst Dan Olds of Gabriel Consulting. A trade-off is that customers have less flexibility to use "best of breed" products, he noted.

The Exalogic cloud system, the Exadata database and the new Supercluster have plenty of overlapping components, which could create challenges for Oracle's sales and marketing teams. But IDC analyst Jean Bozman said they're configured for different types of work.

"The Exalogic system is positioned as a 'cloud in a box.' The idea is that you can support different tiers of computing, so for the Web-enablement tier you can have an application server and some kind of hand-off to a database or an application. Exadata is meant to do very large database processing, the OLTP and business intelligence type of workloads, so that would be more of a back-end server," she said.

Bozman said it's a good time for Unix customers. There's a lot of price competition, because the vendors are battling for a declining portion of the overall server market, and each of the big vendors has now refreshed its Unix system lineups.

Unix server revenue declined 9 percent year over year in the third quarter, even though server sales overall were up a healthy 13 percent, according to new figures from IDC. While the high and low ends of the Unix market contracted, systems in the middle, priced from US$25,000 to $250,000, saw some growth, Bozman said.

"If you're replacing older Unix systems you can get a lot for your money, there's intense competition right now," she said.

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