Oracle Takes On IBM Power With New Sparc T5 Systems
April 1, 2013 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Larry Ellison knows exactly who he wants to knock down in the midrange systems market, and he is not afraid to call out Big Blue by name when he makes a big processor and systems announcement, as Oracle‘s co-founder and CEO did last Tuesday. That was when Oracle launched its Sparc T5 and M5 processors and six new systems based on those homegrown chips. Ellison did not even mention Hewlett-Packard or Dell once during the launch.
And for good reason. Since 2001, the Unix server business of Sun Microsystems has been the whipping boy and revenue generator for Big Blue’s Power Systems business. While it is hard to imagine even one Solaris shop jumping to OS/400 or IBM i–for religious reasons more than any technical ones, mind you–plenty of Solaris shops did make the jump to Power4 systems running AIX and many more followed in the Power5, Power6, and Power7 generations. Having bought Sun Microsystems a little more than three years ago for $7.6 billion, Ellison has gambled that he can invest hundreds of millions of dollars a year (that’s my guess) on Sparc chip and systems development and, given that customers tend to keep their Oracle databases and middleware, and get many of those former Sparc shops to jump back. And with Oracle also owning the Oracle, PeopleSoft, Siebel, and JD Edwards suites, the company can provide a full stack–presumably with deep discounts for those who drink the whole cup of red kool-aid down.
And looking out ahead, Ellison said future Sparc T and M series processors would go one better and start putting Oracle database and Java middleware accelerators right into the processors, offloading functions like sorting from the Sparc cores to the coprocessors and thus freeing them up to do other work. That has to be the scary bit to IBM and any other third-party application provider. Will these features have to be enabled for all databases and application servers? Or just ones with the Big Larry seal of approval on them?
Let’s not worry about that now. Let’s just talk about the entry Sparc T5 systems announced last week that compete most directly with Power7+ entry and midrange boxes. I’ll take a look at the high-end Sparc M5 systems, which really competes against Power 770+, Power 780+, and Power 795 (no plus) systems.
The Sparc T5 chip is a 16-core processor that has eight execution threads in each core. That is twice the cores and twice the threads of the Power7+ processor, but you have to remember all threads are not created equal. IBM has an incredible 80 MB of L3 cache across its eight cores in the Power7+, and while Oracle doubled up the L3 cache on the Sparc T5 compared to the Sparc T4, there is still only 8 MB of L3 cache for the cores to play in. The Sparc T5 chips, which are etched by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp in a 28 nanometer process, same as the Sparc T4s, are clocking 20 percent higher at 3.6 GHz. You only get one clock speed. Period.
Add up the extra cores, threads, and clocks, and the new chip provides roughly 2.3 times the performance of the Sparc T4 chip that Oracle put out in the fall of 2011. That’s a pretty big jump, and it is one that Oracle is quite proud of. It is a lot more than the 25 to 30 percent that Power7 customers can expect from a move to Power7+ machines in the same power class. Again, if your workloads can benefit from the extra cache IBM has in the Power7+ chip, you will do better than that.
Oracle has another advantage over Power7+ as well, and that is I/O bandwidth. IBM has those GX++ ports, funky InfiniBand (20Gb/sec) links out to remote I/O drawers to link up peripherals, but IBM only supports PCI-Express 2.0 peripherals. Oracle has embedded two PCI-Express 3.0 controllers right onto the Sparc T5 die.
There is a Sparc T5-1B single socket blade server, and no one cares except customers who are heavily invested in Oracle’s Sun Blade 6000 chassis. Just like no one really cares that IBM is not going to do a Power7+ upgrade on the BladeCenter PS7XX servers except for the people who recently invested in them. Rack servers are still cheaper and more adaptable in the data center, and they fit better in the typical midrange shop, too, which is used to having a primary machine and maybe a backup. Anyway, single-socket Sparc T1-B, I am bored. Moving right along. . . .
The machine that is most akin to the Power 720+ box that is the most likely new machine for IBM i shops is the Sparc T5-2, which as the name suggests is a two-socket box using the Sparc T5 processor.
The Sparc T5-2 comes in a 3U chassis and has room for six 2.5-inch disk drives. Oracle likes to keep it simple, so you can have SAS drives in 300 GB or 600 GB capacities or SSDs in 100 GB or 200 GB capacities. Each processor socket in the box has 16 memory slots (one for each core for balance) and Oracle only has two memory SKUs: DDR3 memory sticks running at 1.07 GHz in either 8 GB or 16 GB capacities. So the box tops out at 512 GB of main memory. There are four 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports built into the motherboard (you don’t have to buy any extra cards, imagine that) and eight PCI-Express 3.0 x8 peripheral slots. A base machine with Solaris 11.1 and the Logical Domain (LDom) hypervisor configured on it has 256 GB of main memory, two 300 GB disks, and both Sparc T5 processors with all 32 cores activated; it costs $53,948 with an annual support contract of $6,474.
The Sparc T5-4 has four of the compute/memory units, or CMUs, in a 5U enclosure. (Sun used to call them uniboards and IBM calls them processor feature cards, but the idea is the same: put the processor and memory onto a daughter boards that slot into the system motherboard.) The difference this time, however, is that Oracle is supporting fatter 32 GB memory sticks, so the system tops out at 2 TB of main memory. The chassis has storage bays across the bottom, and there are eight of them, which can use the same disk and SSD options as in the T5-2 system. You have the same 10GE networking and PCI-Express slots as in the Sparc T5-2. An entry T5-4 has all four processors in and turned on, 1 TB of memory, two 300 GB disks and costs $147,992 with an annual support contract of $17,759.
The Sparc T5-8 is the machine that Oracle is quite boastful about, and it is precisely the kind of machine that Sun Microsystems should have put into the field, oh, maybe a decade ago and didn’t. Even five years ago might have saved them. Look at the feeds and speeds of this eight-socket machine, which is more like a Power 770+ than anything else (architecturally, not necessarily in terms of performance).
Those are some pretty impressive feeds and speeds for an eight-socket box of any kind crammed into an 8U chassis. The Sparc T5-8 just adds 3U of space and uses the on-chip point-to-point interconnect to link all eight processors (and in fact, all 128 cores) into a mesh. You can get from one to another core in one hop or two, which is as good as it gets in NUMA. With all eight processors, 2 TB of memory, and two disks, this machine costs $268,314 with an annual support contract cost of $32,198.
I’ll be doing some research to try to see how these machines actually stack up to Power7+ machines. Stay tuned.