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This content is part of the Essential Guide: Guide to Oracle engineered systems and server appliances
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Oracle looks to regain Sun shops' trust with SPARC T4 servers

Loyal Sun shops–those that are left of them–have new SPARC server models for running general purpose Solaris applications.

Oracle has new SPARC T4 servers that Sun shops can slot in to existing Solaris environments. Whether they want to is a different story.

“It isn't that customers don't like the [T4] processors, but rather that they're concerned about Oracle--Sun being in the systems business in general,” said Jonathan Eunice, principal IT advisor at Illuminata Inc., an IT consulting company based in Nashua, N.H., in an email. “There is an ongoing feeling that, if T4 doesn't make it big, Oracle will lose interest.”

Sun shops can hardly be faulted for feeling that way, said David Welch, CTO at House of Brick, an IT consultancy in Omaha, Neb., focused on Oracle running on VMware. Examples abound of Oracle Corp. turning an about-face and leaving customers in the lurch.

“If I were a CIO, I would be running a hundred miles in the other direction.”

David Welch, CTO at House of Brick

“Look at its former best girlfriend HP,” Welch said, referring to Oracle and Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co.’s 2008 partnership in which HP provided the systems for Oracle’s Exadata Storage Server, only to replace HP with Sun Microsystems a year later. “[Larry Ellison] ditched that girl on the curb so fast, her head was spinning,” Welch said.

“Oracle doesn’t have a technology problem, it has a trust problem,” Welch added. “If I were a CIO, I would be running a hundred miles in the other direction.”

The market appears to agree with Welch’s assessment. After falling off 32% in 2010, according to Gartner Inc., Oracle server volumes continue their downward spiral. Just last week, Oracle reported a 5% drop in hardware systems sales to $1.03 billion for the quarter.

SPARC T4 chip
Oracle hopes to turn around this decline with the SPARC T4 chip and four servers based on it, including the single-socket SPARC T4-1, the bladed T4-1B, the dual-socket SPARC T4-2, and the quad-socket T4-4. That latter system is also the compute-node building block for the SPARC SuperCluster T4-4, an “engineered system” that, like Oracle’s x86-based Exadata and Exalogic boxes, includes servers, storage, networking, system and application software, and competes squarely with high-end Unix systems, such as the HP Superdome and the IBM Power 795.

The systems are available now, starting at $16,000 for a low-end T4-1 and shooting up to seven figures for a SPARC SuperCluster.

But unlike Exadata and Exalogic, the new SPARC T4s, including the SuperCluster, can run general purpose computing tasks running on Solaris 10 and 11, not just Oracle applications. That may come as some relief to Sun shops, which have watched SPARC-based systems lose ground to other Unix systems, as Sun floundered and was later acquired by Oracle.

From a performance perspective, the T4 has been re-architected to deliver better single-threaded performance, important in transaction-oriented workloads like databases. In contrast, the T3 and its predecessor, UltraSPARC, was originally designed for multi-threaded performance valuable to lightweight workloads like Web serving. The T4 has half the number of cores (eight) versus the T3, maintains eight threads per core, but nearly doubles the clock speed from 1.67GHz to 2.85Ghz--or 3.0GHz, depending on the server. That results in approximately five times the performance of its predecessor on the SPECint2006 benchmark. Oracle also added dynamic threading and out-of-order execution features, plus new branch prediction and prefetch features.

Oracle claims nine world records on benchmarks with its new T4-powered servers, but those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, warned Eunice.

“Oracle tends to be aggressive in its claims, so they need to be carefully parsed,” he said. “For example, performance comparisons to previous generation T processors can be a little bit misleading, since the T processors were not designed for single-stream performance.” And, despite Oracle’s outlandish claims that SuperCluster can deliver five times the transactions of IBM’s high-end Power 795, “Intel, AMD and IBM all have very strong performance, both single stream and multi-threaded,” he added.

Oracle trust issues aside, IT managers continue to move off legacy Unix hardware, regardless of who’s making it. The State of California Department of Water Resources (DWR) recently migrated off a mix of 600 Sun SPARC and Dell servers and consolidated on a HP BladeSystem running VMware. Sun was still independently owned at the time, and “it really wasn’t a brand issue,” said Tim Garza, CIO at the department. “It was about standardizing on x86.”

That’s a common sentiment, Welch said. “In all my travels, I’ve talked to exactly one shop that wants to re-platform back on to Sun hardware. One.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, executive editor at, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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