Oracle bestows Sparc T4 beta on 'select' customers

Sparc T4 server chip not slipping into 2012

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Updated "Select" customers who use Sparc-based Solaris systems are being asked to participate in a beta program for Oracle's next-generation of Sparc T4 systems. And briefly, thanks to a typo in a blog post, it also appeared that those Sparc T4 machines had slipped into 2012 – but worry not: they're still on schedule.

According to a blog post by Masood Heydari, vice president of hardware development at Oracle, the beta program will be available to a "select number of enterprises" – and as you might expect, the company is looking for enthusiastic shops that aim to use early access to Sparc T4 multi-core systems as a competitive advantage.

Oracle is not asking for tire-kickers, but experienced road warriors. Oracle is not expecting customers to put the beta Sparc T4 machines into production, but wants them to run simulated production environments to see how well the Sparc T4 boxes line up against their design goals.

Oracle promised back in December 2010 that it would ship the Sparc T4 systems within a year, and it seems likely that Oracle would announce the new processors at its OpenWorld 2011 customer and partner event in San Francisco early this October, with shipments to follow soon thereafter.

The confusion around the delivery date for the Sparc T4 servers arose in a separate post in the Sparc Edition of Oracle's Information InDepth Newsletter published sometime in late June, when Oracle said that the eight-core Sparc T4 systems would ship in "the first half of 2012," and added that it had begun work on the 16-core Sparc T5 processor. Oracle left out the key words "fiscal year" ahead of that 2012. Oracle is, of course, currently in its fiscal 2012 year, which will end in May 2012; the first half of that fiscal year ends in November 2011.

It is likely that the long-awaited Solaris 11 operating system – five years in the making – will launch at OpenWorld 2011, alongside the Sparc T4 chips and the servers that use them. Alternatively, Oracle could launch the Sparc T4 chip in October, and deliver systems later in this calendar year.

Though Solaris 11 will very likely come out in October, it is still not clear when it might be available for production use; that could come later this year as well. What we do know for sure is that Oracle is not offering Solaris 11 on vintage UltraSparc and Sparc64 iron or in a 32-bit version for x86 and x64 servers and workstations.

A schedule for Sparc T4 processors and systems and Solaris 11 coming out this fall jibes with the Ellisonized Sparc roadmap that Sun put out last year in the wake of the Sun acquisition by Oracle:

Oracle Sparc Roadmap

Roadmap for Oracle Sparc processor and systems and Solaris releases (click to enlarge)

The interesting bit about the Sparc T4s – and what makes them worth the wait for Solaris shops – is that their core count is being cut in half, to eight, while offering the same eight threads per core as the 16-core Sparc T3 processors launched in September, using a 40 nanometer wafer-baking process from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. The Sparc T4 chips will use that same 40nm process, but the Sparc T5s will shift to TSMC's 28 nanometer fab.

Those Sparc T4 cores use a new core design, formerly called "VT" in the old Sun roadmaps (very likely short for Virtual Threads, in contrast to the hard-coded threads in earlier Sparc T designs), that allows a high priority application to grab one thread on a core and hog all of the resources on that core to significantly boost performance of that single thread.

Oracle has begun referring to this trick as the "critical thread API", and Rick Hetherington, vice president of hardware development at Oracle, hinted late last year that such a capability was in the works. But in the Oracle Information InDepth Newsletter, Hetherington put some numbers on how much extra oomph this critical thread capability could give to workloads.

"The aim here was to develop a processor core that would provide high-speed, single-thread performance while also addressing the needs of applications that benefit from the high efficiency and throughput of multithreaded cores," explained Hetherington. "The Sparc T4 is up to five times faster than the Sparc T3 for single-threaded functions. It's breakthrough technology for us."

The expectation is that the Sparc T4 processors will run at somewhere between 2.5GHz and 3GHz, but speeds could go higher. It seems very unlikely that there is an issue with TSMC's 40 nanometer processes and fabs; these are the same processes used with the 1.65GHz Sparc T3 processors. This critical thread API is probably a bit tricky, and might take some extra time to be fully utilized in the Solaris and Oracle database and application stack.

For the Sparc T family of chips to hold their own against Xeon, Power, Itanium, and even Sparc64 chips in the Unix racket, they have to be available as soon as possible, and with full support in the systems software for all of their features. ®

Update

Due to incorrect information inadvertently provided by Oracle as mentioned above, an earlier version of this story reported that the Sparc T4 may be slipping into 2012.

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