Oracle Takes The Midrange Fight To IBM
October 3, 2011 Timothy Prickett Morgan
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: IBM may come to rue the day in the spring of 2009 when it let the former Sun Microsystems slip from its hands and fall into the loving arms of Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison. The company owns JD Edwards, one of the biggest ERP suites still on the IBM i platform, and it now, with the Sparc T4 announced last week, has a decent processor for entry and midrange systems on which to run that software.
The Oracle Database Appliance that Oracle announced two weeks ago and that I told you about in the prior issue of The Four Hundred is a joke compared to the new Sparc T4 systems in terms of its mismatch with the kinds of workloads that JDE shops are used to running and the systems on which they are used to running them. Those are parallel clusters that require Oracle’s Real Application Cluster clustering software to scale performance. But the new Sparc T4 servers are just rack-based SMP servers with one, two, or four of the new eight-core Sparc T4 processors–and ones that sport much better integer and single-threaded performance thanks to a new S3 core design.
The Sparc T3 chips, announced last year, sported 16 cores, with eight threads per core, but the threading algorithms were hard coded and the processors were running at a mere 1.65 GHz, which is not great for single-threaded work like batch jobs. In fact, they were utterly horrible at such work thanks to the low clock speed and in-order execution of the S2 cores in the Sparc T3 chips. But with the new S3 core, Oracle is moving to an out-of-order execution in the S3 pipeline, which can issue two instructions per cycle instead of one as in the S2 cores. The Sparc T4 chips also sport eight threads per core, which is great for Web servers and databases that can span and use lots of cores and threads, a new dynamic threading feature that allows for threads to be hogged by workloads if they have higher priority in the system, and clock speeds of 2.85 GHz or 3 GHz. (If you want to see the guts of the Sparc T4 chip up close, check out my write-up over at The Register from the Hot Chips 23 conference in late August.)
The upshot of all of these changes in the S3 core is that a Sparc T4 processor delivers about the same performance on multithreaded workloads as the Sparc T3. You’d expect that with half the cores running at a little less than twice the clock speed and more cores and OOO execution tossed in. But importantly, on single-threaded work, the Sparc T4 has up to five times the throughput as the Sparc T3s. By the way, Oracle was shooting for a factor of 3X in single-threaded performance, so this is a lot better than expected.
What this means is that the Sparc T series are, for the first time, general purpose processors that midrange shops can deploy to run a variety of workloads. This has not been the case since the Sparc T series machines were announced in December 2005. And these machines are not just a credible platform for JDE applications. Any application that can be supported on a Sparc/Solaris platform–particularly if it is written in Java–is fair game. Just like IBM lowered the boom on Sun back in the early 2000s with its AIX on Power ramp–made possible because IBM charged AS/400 shops exorbitant prices for hardware and software so it could discount AIX boxes insanely to win over Sun shops–Oracle is going to lower the boom on IBM and Hewlett-Packard in the portion of the server racket that is devoted to running Oracle, PeopleSoft, Siebel, JDE, and other applications. This time around, Oracle will be making deals on its database, middleware, and application software to help it push its iron. Mark my words. Larry Ellison is not joking around here; he was just waiting for the chip engineers to get the right processor out the door.
Oracle put out four different Sparc T4 machines last week: three rack machines and a blade server. IBM, which loves its midrange business, should be thanking its lucky stars that midrange shops like tower servers and has not listened to good counsel for years that Sun and now Oracle should do tower machines if it hopes to take on the SMB market. Ditto for HP and Dell, which know that SMBs like tower servers because they like the compactness and completeness of a tower loaded up with peripherals. (If you want to make some money, you might think about inventing a chassis that converts a Sparc T4-4 server into a tower.)
All of the Sparc T4 servers include a license to Solaris 10 or Solaris 11 when it ships (perhaps later this week if Oracle announces it at its OpenWorld shindig in San Francisco) as well as a license to the VM Server for Sparc logical domain partitioning for Sparc T series platforms. These come bundled into the price of the base server, although you need to buy a system support contract and this is not included in the price. (Just like IBM does with Software Maintenance on its Power Systems, whether they run IBM i, AIX, or Linux.) The logical domain software allows as many as one virtual machine partition per thread in terms of granularity, although you can make an LDom span multiple threads, of course. You can also use Solaris 10 containers to make virtual private servers on top of a single Solaris instance (and that can be running on the bare metal or in an LDom).
The Sparc T4-1, shown below, is a 2U rack server with a single Sparc T4 processor socket. It comes with a processor with all eight cores turned on and they run at 2.85 GHz. In the past, like IBM and Intel, Sun shipped chips with lower clock speeds or some of their dud cores isolated at a cheaper price than full speed, full cored models. Oracle, for now, is just offering those two clock speeds and all eight cores are running.
A Sparc T4-1 server has 16 memory slots, and Oracle is, unlike IBM, supporting 16 GB memory sticks in the machine as well as 4 GB and 8 GB sticks, so it can push up the maximum memory capacity of the box to 256 GB. The server has four Gigabit Ethernet ports standard, and also, with the addition of a daughter card on the motherboard, you can access the two 10 Gigabit Ethernet controllers that are integrated onto the Sparc T4 processor. (The Sparc T4 also has one floating point unit per core, two DDR3 memory controllers on the die, as well as support for a total of 16 different encryption and hashing algorithms. These are AES, Camellia, CRC32c, DES, 3DES, DH, DSA, ECC, Kasumi, MD5, RSA, SHA-1, SHA-224, SHA-256, SHA-384, SHA-512. It also has two PCI-Express 2.0 peripheral controllers on the die.) The server has six PCI-Express 2.0 slots and room for six 2.5-inch drives, which can be 300 GB or 600 GB SAS disks; optionally, if you want to get flashy, you can use 100 GB or 300 GB solid state disks in these drive bays.
In a base configuration with 16 GB of memory and two 300 GB drives, Oracle is charging $21,158. Boosting the main memory to 128 GB raises the price to $30,958. If you want to max out the memory, then you need to shell out $44,078. The 10 Gigabit Ethernet daughter card costs $395. A 300 GB disk costs $689 and a 600 GB disk costs $1,149; pricing was not available on the SSDs. Memory sticks are sold in pairs, with two 4 GB sticks running $648, two 8 GB sticks costing $1,632, and two 16 GB sticks running $3,600.
The Sparc T4-1B blade server slides into the Sun Blade 6000 chassis, which packs ten blades into a 10U enclosure. The chassis can support either Sparc or X86 blades and externalizes and virtualizes the disk and network I/O of the blades to a certain extend. The Sparc T4-1B blade is a single-socket machine with 256 GB of maximum memory and two disk bays. In a base configuration with 32 GB of memory with one 300 GB disk, Oracle wants $17,318. IBM midrange shops have shown very little interest in blade servers, so they probably won’t care much about this one.
The Sparc T4-2 doubles up the machine to two sockets, but it does not double up the size of the box to 4U, but rather 3U. So there is not as much room for storage, as you can see:
The Sparc T4-2 has two sockets for the Sparc T4 processors, and the ones in this machine spin at 2.85 GHz. It has 32 memory slots, for a maximum of 512 GB of capacity. This is not as fat as some of the Xeon 7500 and Xeon E7 two-socket boxes can do, with 1 TB or even 2 TB of capacity with memory extenders, but it is as good as what IBM can deliver in a two-socket Power Systems box–at least until the Power7+ machines come out later this fall and IBM doubles up the memory by supporting 16 GB memory sticks. (That’s my guess on the memory–not a preannouncement of a known fact.) This Sparc T4-2 only has enough room for six disks–same SAS disk and SSD drive options as the Sparc T4-1 server. It also has the same networking options as the smaller machine: four Gigabit Ethernet ports on the motherboard and four daughter cards to implement four 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports that hang right off the processor.
A Sparc T4-2 server with 64 GB of memory and two 300 GB disks will run you $34,698, and boosting memory to 256 GB raises the price to $52,138. If you want the full 512 GB of memory, you’ll pay $78,378.
That leaves the workhorse Sparc T4-4, a four-socket machine that is packed into a 5U chassis, as you can see:
The Sparc T4-4 is essentially two Sparc T4-2 two-socket motherboards glued together without an additional chipset (this is called glueless SMP) since the T3 and T3 chips had this built in. This machine gets the faster 3 GHz Sparc T4 processors and tops out at 1 TB of main memory. It has only two of those 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports as well as the four Gigabit Ethernet ports, which makes me think some of the bandwidth for the 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports is being used to SMP clustering. The server has 16 PCI-Express 2.0 slots, all of them x8 slots. It has room for eight 2.5-inch disks or SSDs.
With 128 GB of memory and a single 300 GB disk, the Sparc T4-4 server costs $50,369. A more reasonable configuration with 256 GB of memory and eight 300 GB disks costs $90,312, while a fully loaded machine with 1 TB of memory and eight 600 GB disks will cost you $168,232.
But Wait, There’s A Sparc SuperCluster
For customers who run out of gas on a regular Sparc T4-4 server, Oracle has ginned up something it calls a Sparc SuperCluster T4, which is a cluster of four of these machines plus Exadata storage servers (which have data compression algorithms and SQL pre-processing tuned for the Oracle 11g R2 database) and 40 Gb/sec InfiniBand switches. Here’s what it looks like:
Very roughly speaking, I would guess that this Sparc cluster should have roughly the same performance as a Power 770 running database workloads, but it could be higher because of the compression and SQL pre-chewing of the Exadata storage arrays and the flash integrated into the Sparc T4-4 nodes when used in the SuperCluster. Pricing for this cluster was not announced.
Next week, I will take a look at how these Sparc T4 servers stack up against Power Systems machines, including sussing out how the machines do on the JD Edwards benchmark tests compared to IBM Power Systems boxes running IBM i.