With its new Sparc T4 processor, Oracle is working to pull away from its Sun Microsystems legacy and adopt its own road map for this processor family.
When Oracle acquired Sun in early 2010, it was buying a distressed company that had just abandoned a five-year effort to develop a 16-core Sparc chip, code-named the Rock, as the broader market was increasingly turning to lower-cost x86 systems.
The Rock chip was first due for completion in 2008.
By the time Sun abandoned the Rock project, the future of Sparc, and by extension Sun's Solaris operating system, was fuzzy.
After Oracle took over Sun, revenue from Solaris declined -- by 3.2% in 2010 -- "as end users were skeptical about Oracle's commitment to the Solaris platform," reported Gartner at that time.
To underscore this direction, Mark Hurd, Oracle's co-president, this week said the company is investing in Sparc development and will deliver a multi-generational road map next week.
Moreover, the successor to T4 "is already taped out," meaning that it's in the final design stage, Hurd said in an interview. "There are obviously opportunities for us to grow Sparc," Hurd said.
Solaris is also getting investment because, Hurd added, you need to "marry" the chip to the operating system in order to "get the optimal answer."
Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64, said the T4 is "the most sophisticated and highest-performing Sparc by a long shot."
Brookwood believes that under Oracle's watch, the Sparc engineering team is "much more focused" on taking on projects of less risk and delivering predictable upgrades.
Sun's plan had been to build a T1 family of chips to run its low-end systems, and the Rock processor would run high-end systems.
After the acquisition, Oracle decided that maintaining two semiconductor product lines simultaneously was too ambitious and too risky, said James Staten, an analyst at Forrester Research.
Instead, Oracle believed it could meet the high-end design requirements with one processor design, said Staten.
"That gave them much more consistency in semi-conductor design, a much more achievable road map and time frame," said Staten.
Each of the eight cores in the T4 can run at 3Ghz, versus the T3's 1.65Ghz. But the chip also handles data differently, and that's where it gets its biggest performance boost, said Brookwood.
It is the first Sparc chip with out-of-order processing, said Brookwood.
With this technique, the processor takes data and re-sorts the instructions in order to maximize performance, as opposed to a more conventional approach where the processor just pulls the instructions off the program stream in the order that they are coded, which can cause a performance loss as the program waits for data, he said.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.