Oracle's engineered system line for the Exadata database has been primarily based on Intel architecture. However, the newest addition to the portfolio adds a Sparc-based model that introduces the M7 generation's software-in-silicon capability. The new Sparc-based Exadata machine, the SL6, runs the same Oracle Linux as the current-generation Intel X-6 models and is priced on par with them. Given the market dominance of Intel chips for enterprise servers, Oracle's rationale for pricing the SL6 this way is to counter the "nobody gets fired for buying Intel" mindset by offering superior database performance and security at the same price. The SL6 will be of most interest for enterprises with extreme requirements for performance and security.
A logical next step for Oracle's software-in-silicon
As a company, Oracle has heavily promoted engineered systems, and more recently, the cloud as its strategic direction. It offers a varied portfolio of engineered systems targeted at specific types of database, middleware, and application workloads. Just over a year ago, Oracle introduced software-in-silicon for accelerating database operations. Of course, other features, such as in-memory database, increasing use of Flash solid-state disk (SSD), and on the horizon, new forms of NVRAM (nonvolatile random-access memory) storage (e.g., Intel 3DXPoint), are also designed to enhance performance.
Built into the current-generation Sparc M7 chip, Oracle's software-in-silicon complements, but does not replace, use of high-performance, silicon-based storage. It supports:
SQL and encryption in silicon
inline data decompression
hardware-based memory protection that closes off back doors from errant memory pointers
versioning capabilities that spot corrupted memory pages.
Initially, the Sparc M7 was introduced into Oracle's SuperCluster server, which is engineered for transaction application workloads. With the latest release of Exadata, Oracle is beginning to widen availability of the capability for its high-end database engineered system, which is designed for database consolidation and mixed workloads. While, of course, Exadata is not an entry-priced machine, Oracle's strategy with this release is to make pricing competitive. Since their inception at the former Sun Microsystems, the Sparc chips were always positioned as premium entries compared to Intel x86; in the current generation, the Sparc M7 boasts a capacity for more cores (32) than the latest Intel Xeons (which go up to 22).
Admittedly, in servers, Intel x86 is not unchallenged. For instance, Nvidia has made significant inroads applying its GPUs (originally designed for graphics) for deep-learning artificial intelligence use cases that are beginning to become more mainstream. Nonetheless, across the bulk of the enterprise server space, the Intel x86 architecture has become the de facto standard; Oracle has embraced a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy by offering Intel across many of its engineered systems products. With software-in-silicon, the Sparc M7 becomes relevant for enterprises with extreme requirements for performance and security; running the same Linux as x86, Oracle is significantly reducing risk. That makes the choice between the Intel and Sparc Exadatas a matter of features, not hardware. We are waiting for Oracle to introduce the SL6 as an option to its Exadata services in the public cloud.
"Oracle's latest Sparc refresh puts software in silicon," IT0014-003071 (October 2015)
The Cloud-First Strategy of Oracle Database 12c Release 2, IT0014-003194 (January 2017)
"Bare metal becomes a key part of the Oracle IaaS cloud story," IT0014-003222 (January 2017)
Tony Baer, Principal Analyst, Information Management