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Oracle sees big future for Sparc servers, says Mark Hurd

Chip and Solaris OS updates underline commitment

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With its new Sparc T4 processor, Oracle is working to pull away from its Sun Microsystems legacy and adopt its own roadmap for this processor family.

When Oracle acquired Sun in early 2010, it was buying a distressed company that had just abandoned a five year effort to develop a 16-core Sparc chip, codenamed the Rock, as the broader market was increasingly turning to lower cost x86 systems.

The Rock chip was first due for completion in 2008. By the time Sun abandoned the Rock project, the future of Sparc and by extension Sun's Solaris operating system was fuzzy.

After Oracle took over Sun, revenue from Solaris declined, by 3.2% in through 2010, "as end users were skeptical about Oracle's commitment to the Solaris platform," reported Gartner at that time.

With a new chip, dubbed the Sparc T4 and systems built to support it, Oracle seems to be putting that past behind as it gives clarity to its future. To underscore this direction, Mark Hurd, Oracle's co-president, this week said the company is investing in Sparc development, and will deliver a multi-generational roadmap next week.

Moreover, the successor to T4 "is already taped out," meaning that it's in the final design stage, Hurd said. "There are obviously opportunities for us to grow Sparc," Hurd said. Solaris is getting investment as well because you need to "marry" the chip to the operating system to "get the optimal answer," he added,

Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64, said the T4 is "the most sophisticated and highest performing Sparc by a long shot."

Brookwood believes that under Oracle's watch, the Sparc engineering team is "much more focused" on taking on projects of less risk and delivering predictable upgrades.

Sun's plan had been to build a T1 family of chips to run its low end systems, and the Rock processor would run high end systems. After the acquisition, Oracle decided that maintaining two semiconductor product lines simultaneously was too ambitious and too risky, said James Staten, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Instead, Oracle believed it could meet the high end design requirements with one processor design, said Staten. "That gave them much more consistency in semi-conductor design, a much more achievable roadmap and time frame," said Staten.

Each of the eight cores in the T4 can run at 3Ghz, versus the T3's 1.65Ghz. But the chip also handles data differently and that's where it gets its biggest performance boost, according to Brookwood. It is the first Sparc chip with out-of-order processing.

With this technique, the processor takes data and resorts the instructions in order to maximise performance as opposed to a more conventional approach, where the processor just pulls the instructions off the program stream in the order that they are coded, which can cause a performance loss as the program waits for data, he said.


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