IT Innovation

Servers on the Cutting Edge

Organizations deploy x86 blade servers from Oracle to reduce costs and sharpen business services.

By David A. Kelly

September/October 2011

Once deployed only as Web servers and in less-critical deployment scenarios, x86-based servers are now deployed in datacenters and cloud computing environments across the globe and are successfully powering business-critical applications. x86 processors, including Intel’s powerful Xeon processors, are the processing foundation for cutting-edge Oracle hardware, including database and storage appliances such as Oracle Exadata. With standards-based x86 servers powering the engine rooms of so many organizations’ IT infrastructures, what differentiates Oracle x86-based servers?

“Part of the attraction of purchasing x86-based servers from Oracle is that they’re delivering an optimized hardware and software technology stack,” says Jean S. Bozman, research vice president for the Enterprise Platforms Group at International Data Corporation (IDC). “For Oracle, it’s not just a matter of selling a lot of small servers but of providing solutions that support certain types of workloads appropriate for the enterprise, midmarkets, and service providers, and putting in the layers of Oracle’s software that support those workloads.”

Oracle Delivers Real Horsepower for Harvard Medical School

Gathering and organizing volume data that informs decision-makers requires significant processing capacity. That’s one of the key reasons that the IT group at the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School turned to Oracle’s Sun servers to power high-end statistical analysis jobs.

“While the department isn’t terribly large in terms of users, the types of high-volume transfer and high-volume statistical jobs that we run tend to push the limits of typical enterprise systems,” says Young Sul, senior systems administrator, Department of Health Care Policy, at Harvard Medical School. “That’s why Oracle [hardware and software] has always been a good fit.”
Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Employees: More than 140
Oracle products: Sun Fire X4470 and other Sun Fire x86 servers, Oracle Solaris 10

CBOE Holdings
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Employees: 600
Revenue: US$437 million in 2010
Oracle products: Sun Fire X4270 servers, Sun ZFS Storage Appliance, Oracle Real Application Clusters, Oracle Database 11g, Oracle Solaris

The Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School is an interdisciplinary department that includes doctors, economists, sociologists, psychologists, and other specialists. It manages studies and research on healthcare, from the impact of social networking to outcomes for posttraumatic stress disorder treatments.

The department is composed of about 140 people, including primary investigators, statisticians, and statistical programmers. As might be expected, much of the analysis relies on manipulating very large data sets and in-depth number crunching, requiring enterprise-class server horsepower and highly scalable, high-bandwidth storage.

“We manage the storage of very, very large data sets and the acquisition of servers that can handle the kinds of statistical processing that our investigators and statisticians need to do for the publications they’re working on,” says Sul. “A few years ago, we were talking 100 MB; now we’re pulling in terabyte and multi-terabyte data sets. It’s ramped up significantly.”

For most of its 25 years, Health Care Policy has been a Sun shop, from its disk arrays to servers to Web servers. Key decision factors for using Oracle’s x86-based Sun servers include price for performance and a consistent management and deployment experience.

“When we introduced our first x86 system a few years ago, it became one of the most popular systems among the analysts to work on,” says Sul. “It actually became a little problematic because everyone wanted to use it, since it was just much, much faster than what we had previously.”

Currently, Health Care Policy has several x86 servers—Sun Fire X4470 and other Sun Fire x86 servers—deployed. The prices for x86-based systems are competitive, but according to Sul, one of the more important benefits of an x86-based architecture is its scalability. “Since the systems are homogeneous, it makes it easier for us to incorporate new hardware whenever we need to,” says Sul. “For example, we’ve recently been purchasing multi-CPU dense systems with lots of memory, which are great for statistical analysis.”

Another real advantage for Sul and the Health Care Policy group is the management solutions Oracle provides. “The lights-out management feature [Oracle Integrated Lights Out Manager] is really convenient for us because it allows us to control, manage, and even reboot a frozen server from a remote console,” says Sul.

Oracle in the Engine Room

In addition to scalability, reliability, and price/performance benefits, one of the key factors making x86 servers so popular is the relatively fast rate of change in the underlying CPU and chipset technologies. Newer processors are faster, and organizations like faster servers.


“Our releases are timed with the pace of development in the x86 market,” says Ali Alasti, vice president of x86 management at Oracle. “As new x86 CPUs and chipsets are made available, we introduce new systems that take advantage of those latest releases.”

Instead of just delivering raw processing power in a new server, however, Oracle is focused on delivering x86-based solutions—tested and benchmarked combinations of the latest chips with enterprise-tuned configurations, with integrated software packages and options.

Oracle offers a range of x86 servers, both rackmount and blades, engineered for virtualization (with Oracle VM), high performance, availability, and reliability. In July 2011, for example, Oracle announced the availability of the Sun Fire X4800 M2 server. The rackmount server is powered by up to eight Intel Xeon E7-8800 processors and features 2 TB of memory, 4.8 TB of internal storage, eight hot-swappable PCI ExpressModules, and Oracle Integrated Lights Out Manager. The x86-based system is optimized to run Oracle Solaris, Oracle Linux, and Oracle VM.

More for Less at CBOE Holdings

When your business is built around microsecond response times for trading in highly active financial derivatives products, performance, reliability, and availability don’t just matter—they’re all that matters. That’s why CBOE Holdings migrated its infrastructure to Oracle’s Sun x86 servers.

“Moving to x86-based servers wasn’t only a good idea; it was essential to our business,” says Gerald O’Connell, executive vice president and CIO at CBOE Holdings. “Price, performance, and capability on x86-based servers are all significantly better than our previous architecture.”

Established in 1973, CBOE Holdings is the largest U.S. options exchange and creator of listed options. In 2010, CBOE Holdings posted its third consecutive year of trading volume at more than 1 billion contracts. CBOE Holdings has two exchanges in Chicago, Illinois—Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) and CBOE Futures Exchange—as well as its all-electronic New Jersey-based C2 Options Exchange, which opened for trading in October 2010, and its partly owned CBOE Stock Exchange.

As you might expect, CBOE Holdings’ IT environment revolves around its high-performance trading systems. The organization is currently running more than 700 Sun Fire x86-based servers—including Sun Fire X4270—on CBOEdirect, and all the applications run on Java. CBOE Holdings’ back-end systems run Oracle databases and data warehouses on x86 servers as well.

“Everything we run is x86-based,” says O’Connell. “We’ve found x86-based servers easy to integrate into our IT environment.”

While some companies might try to hold on to their hardware investments, CBOE Holdings tends to keep its servers active for only about two years in its production environment. “We’re always looking for the next fastest server,” says O’Connell. “When faster processors and faster machines come out, we put them in, because microsecond response time is key for us in the highly competitive exchange environment.”

CBOE Holdings’ architecture is designed to scale both horizontally and vertically, depending on the organization’s needs. Scalability is especially important as the company grows its business. To help it capitalize on the scalability capabilities that x86-based servers can provide, CBOE Holdings has also made sure to engineer its software architecture to scale.

“Our exchanges all run the same code set and the same platform,” says O’Connell. “We’ve built it in a way to handle different types of trading assets, classes, options, stocks, and futures. The system runs the same code set with just XML parameter changes.” Each exchange has different hardware configurations, based on that exchange’s scalability and load requirements.

One of the things that is important for CBOE Holdings as it continues to grow is ensuring that it can optimize its IT hardware and deployment platform for its core Java applications.

“Everything we do is Java, so we depend on the Java Virtual Machine that comes from Oracle,” says O’Connell. CBOE Holdings leverages its expertise in Java across all of its applications and has been at the forefront of providing feedback to Sun—and now to Oracle—on how to deploy and run high-performance Java.

In the end, CBOE Holdings’ business performance depends entirely on its IT infrastructure. And CBOE Holdings’ IT infrastructure is built on Oracle hardware and software. From O’Connell’s perspective, that’s a pretty solid foundation.

“We have a very good relationship with Oracle,” says O’Connell. “We’re actually very close with Oracle, and to have Oracle in control of more of the software stack and having a single point of contact is a very good thing for us.”

More and Less

From rackmount and blade deployments to the incredible integration and performance of specialized appliances like Oracle Exadata, Oracle x86-based systems deliver optimized software and hardware solutions.

“Our x86 servers are designed to support enterprise features,” says Ali Alasti, vice president of x86 management at Oracle. “By marrying Oracle software with Oracle hardware, we can deliver better performance density and higher performance per server.”

The bottom line is that the value of Oracle x86-based servers goes beyond the performance of the chips inside.

“We can provide easier installs, easier patching, easier general management, and easier support for the software and hardware combination,” Alasti concludes. “All the integration and testing work we do pays off by delivering better performance, better support, and better value.”

Next Steps

READ more about
 Sun x86 servers
 Oracle x86 Rack Servers: Optimized for Rapid Deployments and Operational Efficiency
 Sun Blade servers
 Sun Fire X4800 M2 server


Photography byhreaw,Unsplash