Scanrail - Fotolia

RISC processors look to hold on to the SPARC, keep up the Power

Cloud computing is built on the x86 processor, but don't forget RISC processors -- simple, yet powerful chips that still drive some of the data center's most important workloads.

When the going gets tough, the tough turn to RISC processors. That could be the motto for some IT pros in today's...

era of cloud computing, where there is very little that can't be done by Intel-based, x86 servers.

The reduced instruction set computing (RISC) processor occupies a narrow role in the data center of the future, pigeon-holed into specific uses, while x86-architecture chips continue to align with cloud computing. The role of RISC processors has dwindled for years, and its immediate future was cast into doubt in recent weeks after layoffs in the SPARC division at Oracle.

A decade ago, 80% to 90% of workloads could run on an x86 processor. Today, that number is up to 98% to 99%, with almost all workloads able to run on a high-end Intel E7 server, four-socket or larger, said Richard Fichera, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

"Every successive generation of x86 compresses the number of workloads that really need high-end processors further and further," he said.

Oracle went on the offensive this week, framing the layoffs as something that came as part of a reshuffle of focus and not from an effort to phase out SPARC and the Solaris operating system, which the company bought from Sun Microsystems in 2010.

The company has adjusted its workforce where new skills are needed or not, to focus on the integration between its software and hardware, as well as increase its cloud computing capabilities, said Nick Cock, senior director of the hardware business group at Oracle, in a webinar to review recent changes to the SPARC and Solaris roadmap. Some customers and industry watchers interpreted those changes as a signal of the impending death of the server platform and operating system, but Cock said the changes make the technology more predictable and digestible.

In fact, the integration of SPARC and Solaris to optimize Oracle's software on its hardware is a "life-extender" for SPARC for at least another decade, Fichera said.

"People tend to underestimate the stickiness of legacy technology," he said. "There's an inertia effect; if you have been running it for the last 20 years on a Unix base, even if x86 could technically answer that, there is a cost you have to allocate to risk if you are going to migrate that."

People tend to underestimate the stickiness of legacy technology.
Richard Ficheravice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research

Enterprises have moved off RISC processors to commodity x86 on Linux and Windows because of the dramatic cost benefits, said Jason Anderson, technology director at Datalink Corp., a data center services provider in Eden Prairie, Minn. Running on x86 makes it easier to use cloud computing, and unless a company is going to use an Oracle-only cloud or IBM-only cloud, it won't have access to those processor architectures.

"X86 is the lingua franca of cloud at this point," he said. "If you are taking an existing workload and looking at shifting to cloud, it has to be on x86 before you can go anywhere with it."

RISC processor hangs tough with legacy apps

Demand for RISC processors has especially slowed for midmarket enterprises, with a slower decline -- or maybe a steady holding pattern -- in larger enterprises, Anderson said. Net-new demand for RISC processors is limited to enterprises with a large IT department that run such workloads and have a staff that is up to speed with the needed skills.

Nonetheless, RISC processors still have appeal for large, monolithic applications that need a lot of cores, such as a business' most important database workloads with high transaction rates that require low latency. He pointed to airline reservation and stock settlement systems as prime examples.

"You don't want to say the fat lady is singing -- that is premature," Anderson said. "These platforms still have strength with high-memory throughput and large-scale, single-system images."

The Clearing House in New York, a hardware and infrastructure provider that connects banks and financial institutions that build applications based on it, wanted to build a new, real-time money transfer platform available 24/7.

With those reliability expectations and the need for scalability, The Clearing House benchmarked a hosting platform and, out of three contenders, settled on an IBM POWER8-based system running Linux and AIX operating systems.

"We went out looking for a platform, and when we found it, we went back to the application provider and said, 'This is the infrastructure you need to make it work on,'" said Thomas Statnick, the company's executive vice president and CIO.

The international payments software from VocaLink had never run on Power before, he said.

IBM recognizes the specific role RISC processors will play, but in the era of cognitive computing -- IBM Power Systems is in the midst of being renamed IBM Cognitive Systems -- the company hopes the thirst to put to use data, analytics and transactions will be done on Power.

The confidence in Power's reliability has been the key, in many cases, for users that have selected it over x86, said Steve Sibley, vice president of Power Systems offering management at IBM.

This summer, IBM is expected to release the POWER9 chip, which will have up to 24 cores. The chip will be part of IBM servers and also servers from partners in the OpenPOWER Foundation.

The traditional UNIX marketplace, including SPARC and Solaris, has not grown, but Power hangs on, according to Nick Turk, a solution architect at Logicalis Inc.

"Clients that have big iron and look for a place to take those important workloads, they want it to be very resilient and secure," he said.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

Next Steps

ARM servers act as another competitor to x86

Learn about the rise of blade servers

Stand-alone servers are being phased out in data centers

Dig Deeper on Server hardware strategy