Innovative SPARC: Lighting a Fire Under Oracle's New Hardware Business
By pfolgado on Mar 26, 2010
"There's a certain level of things you can do with commercially available parts," says Oracle Executive Vice President Mike Splain. But, he notes, you can do so much more if you design the parts yourself.
You can, for example, design cryptographic accelerators into your microprocessors so customers can run their networks fully encrypted if they choose.
Of course, it helps if you've already built multiple processing "cores" into those chips so they can handle all that encrypting and decrypting while still getting their other work done.
System on a Chip
As the leader of Oracle Microelectronics, Mike knows how implementing clever innovations in silicon can give systems a real competitive advantage.
The SPARC microprocessors that his team designed at Sun pioneered the concept of multiple cores several years ago, and the UltraSPARC T2 processor--the industry's first "system on a chip"--packs up to eight cores per chip, each running as many as eight threads at once. That's the most cores and threads of any general-purpose processor.
Looking back, Mike points out that the real value of large enterprise-class servers was their ability to run a lot of very large applications in parallel.
"The beauty of our CMT [chip multi-threading] machines is you can get that same kind of parallel-processing capability at a much lower cost and in a much smaller footprint," he says.
The Whole Stack
What has Mike excited these days is that suddenly the opportunity to innovate is much bigger as part of Oracle.
"In my group, we used to look up the software stack and say, 'We can do any innovation we want, provided the only thing we have to change is what's in the Solaris operating system'--or maybe Java," he says. "If we wanted to change things beyond that, we'd have to go outside the walls of Sun and we'd have to convince the vendors: 'You have to align with us, you have to test with us, you have to build for us, and then you'll reap the benefits.' Now we get access to the entire stack. We can look all the way through the stack and say, 'Okay, what would make the database go faster? What would make the middleware go faster?'"
Changing the World
Mike and his microelectronics team also like the fact that Oracle is not just any software company. We're #1 in database, middleware, business intelligence, and more.
"We're like all the other engineers from Sun; we believe we can change the world, if we can just figure out how to get people to pay attention to us," he says. "Now there's a mechanism at Oracle--much more so than we ever had at Sun."
He notes, too, that every innovation in SPARC has involved some combination of hardware and software
"Take our cryptography framework, for example. Sure, we can accelerate rapidly, but the Solaris OS has to provide the right set of interfaces that applications can tap into," Mike says. "Same thing with our multicore architecture. We have to have software that can utilize all those threads and run in parallel."
His engineers, he points out, have never been interested in producing chips that sell as mere components.
"Our chips are always designed to go into systems and be combined with various pieces of software," he says. "Our job is to enable the creation of systems."