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Oracle takes a shot at IBM's mainframe business

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March 27, 2013

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has launched his first mainframe-class computer that he says is going to compete directly at IBM's mainframe and Unix server divisions.

Additionally, it looks like Ellison will be able to make some credible arguments as to why enterprise customers running Oracle software will run better on the new Oracle Sparc T5 and M5 servers.

Oracle announced its new Sparc servers at an event in San Francisco yesterday. At the presentation, Ellison touched on some of the critical characteristics of the new mainframe servers, but he spent most of his time explaining how Oracle would push the performance of the new servers even further after taking the lead from Intel and IBM in terms of throughput-per-processor against IBM's Power Systems lineup.

When Ellison cofounded Oracle in 1977 with Bob Miner, in those days, IBM mainframes and DEC VAXes were the main machines big companies used in commercial computing.

And Oracle has always run its software on IBM mainframes and is well acquainted with their virtues-- security, I/O throughput, reliability-– and yes: their exhorbitant costs to acquire and maintain.

Oracle paid $7.6 billion to acquire Sun Microsystems a little more than three years ago to get its hands on Java and Solaris, but also to get high-caliber hardware engineers who could build systems that would push back against the onslaught of IBM in the Unix segment.

And contrary to a lot of internet chatter lately, Ellison has maintained his commitment to both Sparc and x86 machines. He likes to build and control his entire stack, and Sparc processors and systems let him do that.

To be sure, the Sparc T Series chips have more threads than any other enterprise processor on the market, but they have not been very good at raw, single-threaded, integer workloads.

The situation was slighly improved with the Sparc T4, and it has apparently got quite a bit better with the Sparc T5. "These mainframe computers deliver better integer performance than the IBM Power series," claims Ellison. "The T5 microprocessor itself delivers better integer performance than IBM's PowerPC chip. Now that is really extraordinary, because IBM has had that lead for a very, very long time for integer rate performance, but that lead now moves over from IBM Power to the Sparc T5.

"A lot of people are surprised by this," continued Ellison. "When Oracle acquired Sun, almost everybody thought the Sparc microprocessor was a real laggard. There were some who believed that we would never catch up. Well, we have done better than catch up. We caught up, and then we simply surpassed the competition. We passed x86 and we passed IBM Power."

But Ellison also said that playing catch-up is easier than trying to go and double performance again as it has done with the Sparc T3 to T4 and then to the T5.

So what is Oracle going to do for an encore? Add database, Java, and other accelerators to its chips to make its software run faster, and free up those Sparc processor cores to do other tasks, that's how.

Just like it added vector math units and encryption/decryption units to its T-series chips, Oracle is going to add database and Java accelerators to its new line of mainframe processors.

First, you want to extract a range of matching data from the database. So you load the data into main memory and the processor runs the database algorithms to make the comparisons to find matches. When you find a match, you save it, and when you don't find a match, you ignore it.

The processor cores are obviously busy through this whole process. Now, etch that database search function in the chip. You then drop the data you are searching for into a buffer and the database search accelerator looks through the entire database without invoking the processor at all.

"We think that this will give us a greater advantage going forward," Ellison said. It doesn't hurt that Oracle owns some of the most popular systems software in the world, so it has customers who will be eager for these accelerated functions even if they are probably getting nervous about vendor lock-in.

But that said, with Oracle claiming up to a factor of 10X improvement dollar-for-dollar versus IBM's Power Systems machines, it's already trying to claim it has a huge lead in value. The question is, can Oracle start penetrating IBM accounts, particularly those that used to be Sun accounts? That remains to be seen.

But with the kind of numbers that Ellison was throwing around at yesterday's event, you can bet a lot more CIOs and CFOs are going to listen closely.

Ellison then claimed that the new Sparc M5-32, which has 32 sockets using six-core M5 chips and scales up to 32 TB of memory in a single rack, offers three times the performance compared to IBM's top-end Power 795 system, and has an order of magnitude better value-for-dollar compared to the high-end Sparc Enterprise M-9000 machines from Fujitsu.

Of course, the real question is how the Sparc T5 mainframes stack up against existing x86 systems in terms of price/performance, and Ellison didn't have a single thing to say about that. Oracle is obsessed with taking a good chunk of market share back from IBM in the midrange and high-end of the Unix market, and yesterday's event is the best proof of that.

In other IT news

An open source software user group in Spain has filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft with the European Commission, claiming that the company's implementation of UEFI (Universal Extensible Firmware Interface) Secure Boot represents unfair competition to the PC industry, and especially to the Linux community.

Hispa Linux, an 8,000-member organization that advocates and facilitates Linux utilization in Spain, filed the complaint with the Commission's Madrid office yesterday.

In its complaint, the association alleges that Microsoft has used UEFI Secure Boot requiring that operating systems be digitally signed before they will boot, as an obstruction mechanism against non-Windows systems, including Linux.

Microsoft requires all hardware OEMs to ship their devices with Secure Boot enabled by default if they want to receive Windows 8 compatibility certification, using a key provided by Redmond. As a result, Linux users must resort to clumsy workarounds to install the operating system, particularly if they want to dual-boot.

Source: Oracle.

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