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As new systems launch, let's look at the SPARC M7 processor

Oracle has begun to roll out products based on the SPARC M7 chip. Will they live up to the company's hype? Expert Robert Sheldon offers an overview of the processor.

Oracle recently unveiled at OpenWorld a new set of systems built on the SPARC M7 processor, the sixth SPARC chip the company has released since it acquired Sun Microsystems in 2010. With the SPARC M7, Oracle has pushed the processor envelope further than ever. The new systems merge hardware and software into a single unit that delivers memory intrusion protection and encryption, along with query acceleration and inline decompression.

The SPARC M7 is Oracle's first SPARC processor designed entirely in-house. Oracle had originally set out to build a processor that integrated specific database operations into the hardware in order to improve query performance. The chip has since blossomed into the more robust processor it is today.

The feature that sets the SPARC M7 apart from its predecessors more than any other is its Software in Silicon design, an architecture that embeds software functions on the chip, helping to improve security and enhance application performance. Oracle has already implemented the chip in its latest line of SPARC servers and engineered systems.

Introducing the SPARC M7 processor

Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems in 2010 for $7.4 billion and has been steadily upgrading the SPARC chip and its servers ever since. When developing the SPARC M7, Oracle incorporated software features into the microprocessor, hoping to create a secure, high-performing chip for driving systems that would integrate with existing operations and boost those in virtual and cloud environments.

The SPARC M7 is a 4.1 GHz, 32-core, 256-thread processor, making it the fastest commercial chip in the world, according to Oracle. Those outside the company have yet to weigh in on this claim.

Oracle based the SPARC M7 on the S4 core design, a dual-issue, out-of-order core architecture that supports dynamic threading for up to eight hardware threads. The SPARC M7 combines four S4 cores into a core cluster, with each core having its own 16-KB L1 instruction and data cache. The processor is made up of eight core clusters, giving us 32 cores and 256 threads.

Database performance also plays a pivotal role in the SPARC M7 story, which is to be expected.

The SPARC M7 processor already drives Oracle's new standalone servers, the SPARC T7 and SPARC M7, which can utilize the chip's performance and security functions. The new processor also powers the SuperCluster M7, one of Oracle's engineered systems that integrates hardware, software and networking components into a unified environment.

The SPARC M7 chip can scale up to 512 cores, 4,096 threads and 8 terabytes (TB) of memory. Oracle has also released Solaris 11.3, which offers integrated support for the chip's embedded features.

How SPARC M7 shifts security

Although the SPARC M7 started out as a database performance enhancer, much of the press surrounding the new chip centers on its Security in Silicon features, which provide advanced intrusion protection and cryptographic acceleration. Through these features, Oracle hopes to move security out of the operating system and back-end software and into the hardware itself, where it is theoretically the safest.

The processor's intrusion protection, known as Silicon Secured Memory (SSM), provides safeguard and monitoring capabilities built into the hardware, replacing the need for software-based instrumentation. To protect operations, SSM assigns a key to the memory blocks being allocated to an application, which prevents all other applications from accessing those blocks. When the assigned application no longer needs access, SSM expires the key.

While all this is occurring, an application can monitor the memory blocks in real time in order to identify illegal attempts at memory access, diagnose their cause and take appropriate action. According to Oracle, this capability can help protect against programming errors as well as against malicious attacks such as the infamous Heartbleed security bug.

The other Security in Silicon component is on-core cryptographic acceleration, which enables high-speed encryption at the hardware level, based on industry-standard cryptographic algorithms. For example, applications can offload and delegate their public-key encryption operations based on one of several standard algorithms, including RSA, Digital Signature Standard, Diffie-Hellman key exchange and elliptic curve cryptography.

To access the cryptographic accelerators, applications use the Cryptographic Framework features built into Oracle Solaris. The framework serves as the intermediary between the applications and the hardware, and provides the services and APIs necessary to delegate the cryptographic operations. The accelerators themselves are integrated directly into each processor core, providing cryptographic units that can communicate with each other across the inter-chip network. According to Oracle, the new feature will deliver levels of performance that cannot be achieved with software-based cryptography.

SQL in Silicon on the SPARC M7 processor

Database performance also plays a pivotal role in the SPARC M7 story, which is to be expected given the advantage Oracle has in this arena. The company owns both the database and the chip. Not only can Oracle pull apart the technologies to figure out what functions might work best on the processor, but it can also do something about it.

To that end, Oracle has added co-processing to all 32 cores, delivered through eight on-chip accelerators that offload and accelerate specific query-related functions. The acceleration feature, dubbed In-Memory Query Acceleration, supports two basic functions of SQL processing: scanning specific strings across large amounts of memory, and assisting in filtering and joining rows. Oracle claims that In-Memory Query Acceleration can increase database performance tenfold.

Another SQL in Silicon feature that works in conjunction with In-Memory Query Acceleration is In-Line Decompression, which automatically decompresses data that's been compressed as part of an in-memory database. The chip decompresses the data at the same time it performs data scans, minimizing the performance overhead found in software-based solutions. According to Oracle, a 2 TB database can be compressed in-memory to one-eighth or one-tenth its size on a disk, without compromising performance during the decompression phase.

What's ahead for the SPARC M7 processor

To support its claims that the SPARC M7 can deliver on performance, Oracle offers as evidence its own load tests, which boast world record results on over 20 benchmarks. Given these benchmarks, it should come as no surprise that Oracle expects to come out well ahead of anything Intel and IBM currently offer.

Still, the fact remains that Oracle only recently released the new systems built on the chip. It will take several months at least before we see whether the SPARC M7 will live up to its Oracle-generated reputation. Even if it does, Oracle still faces the daunting task of convincing more organizations to invest in technologies that are not industry standards.

Oracle will also need to prove that the Software in Silicon model can deliver over the long haul. Merging hardware and software might sound like a good next step in processor evolution, but we have no way of knowing whether this model can be sustained in ongoing production environments. All we're seeing so far are the shiny parts.

Even so, Oracle appears committed to the SPARC platform and will likely continue to improve and evolve the processor and servers. Much of that evolution will be driven by how well the SPARC M7 is received. Oracle has taken a big step with the SPARC M7 -- whether it's a step forward is yet to be seen.

Next Steps

Find out more about another new SPARC processor, Sonoma

Get up to date on more Oracle announcements at OpenWorld

Dig Deeper on Oracle operating systems (Solaris, Open Solaris, Unbreakable Linux)