Oracle has turned up the hype machine to full blast, launching what it says is the fastest enterprise server around.
Now, all it has to do is convince customers they need such hardware. Sales for all suppliers in the RISC-based server market -- IBM, Oracle/Sun, HP, and Fujitsu, for instance -- have been declining in recent years, losing ground to x86-based machines.
Still, Oracle deserves credit for trying. Its new T5 SPARC processors are able to run at a blazing 3.6GHz and they boast significant increases in I/O speed, as well. The chips comprise 16 cores, with each one able to handle eight execution threads. All of which adds up to a hefty chunk of compute power good for grinding through database queries and other enterprise-class tasks.
At a launch event held March 26 at its headquarters in Redwood Shores, Calif., Oracle used a barrage of images, loud music, and flashing lights to unveil the SPARC T5 processor, a new line of midrange servers based on that chip, and the high-end M5 processor and several symmetric multiprocessor (SMP) machines based on that chip. (The M5 sports only six cores, vs. the T5's 16, but adds a big chunk of level 2 cache memory. The biggest M5-based server system can be equipped with a whopping 32TB of main memory.)
Larry Ellison, Oracle CEO and head pitchman, boasted of 17 record-setting benchmarks and made numerous comparisons of Oracle's systems to those of chief rival IBM.
"We've doubled the amount of cores, we've doubled the amount of threads, we've more than doubled the memory bandwidth and doubled the size of the cache, " Ellison said of the T5.
According to Ellison, an Oracle T5-8 server lists for $270,000 and in running ERP applications offers five times the price-performance of a comparable IBM Power 780 AIX server costing $1.27 million. No surprise, other such box-to-box lineups also showed IBM on the losing side of the scale.
Since then, IBM has taken strong issue with Oracle's comparison's, but it's quite clear that even if the high-end server sector is struggling in terms of sales, Oracle is determined to boost its share of the pie.
Market researcher IDC says UNIX-based servers accounted for $13 billion of IT spending in 2010, or one out of four dollars of all spending on enterprise systems. But an analysis by Information Week indicates that the market Oracle is selling into is definitely weakening.
"This is not a high growth area," Nathan Brookwood told me in an interview. Brookwood is principal analyst with research firm Insight64. He added, though, that if the current mantra from CFOs and CEOs to IT is to "do more with less," Oracle's message of a cost advantage over IBM may resonate.
But for how long? That is the real question, Brookwood suggest, for IBM is soon to revamp its Power platform and then, all comparisons favoring Oracle may be old news. As Information Week notes, one IBM blog has argued that some of the Oracle's 17 benchmarks are not even published or audited.
One sign of promise for the UNIX server market is that datacenters built around such platforms aren't easily dispatched to the cloud, said Brookwood. The typical compute cloud setup these days runs x86-based hardware, and that gives Oracle, IBM, and others in the market some breathing room.
"This market served by Oracle, IBM or HP Itanium, that's a different world [from x86]," Brookwood said. "You have to almost go through a special door to get into it."
Meanwhile, there's an argument kicking around the web that Intel's ability to keep pushing the performance of high-end x86 processors may be significantly hindered by the accelerating collapse of PC sales. Intel, the thinking goes, has long depended on high-volume sales of PC-class processors to subsidize development of server-class chips. As that subsidy effectively dries up, Oracle et al. may find themselves on a more equal footing.
It's interesting times in high-end Unix servers, that's for sure. But that's how it ought to be, no?