SPARC M7 Feature Story

SPARC M7 Processor

Processor Innovation
Leverages ‘Software in Silicon’

By John Soat


SPARC technology plans emphasise innovation leadership, Oracle's commitment to advanced silicon and Engineered Systems


The next-gen SPARC was on the agenda at Hot Chips 26.

Innovation is the life's blood of the technology industry. And technology innovation is a critical factor in business, government and culture. Oracle is keenly aware of this innovation imperative, not only in theory but in practice, investing considerable time, effort and resources in driving information technology and its effective implementation forward, first in software then in storage, networking and hardware.

A significant result of this effort came to light at the Hot Chips conference in Cupertino (California) where Oracle disclosed technology details of its upcoming SPARC processor, known as the SPARC M7. The venue is appropriate: This year is the 26th anniversary of the semiconductor industry's showcase for innovative technology, sponsored by the IEEE's technical committee on microprocessors and microcomputers and in cooperation with the ACM's SIGARCH (Special Interest Group on Computer Architecture). This is a milestone for Oracle. With the disclosure of the M7, Oracle will have introduced six new SPARC processors in the four years since it acquired Sun Microsystems. That aggressive timeline reinforces Oracle's commitment to the SPARC architecture, to maintaining its relevance in the technology environment.

Software in Silicon

The innovations in the new SPARC processor are of a piece with the design philosophy at the heart of Oracle Engineered Systems. It's an approach to enterprise IT architecture that fits together servers, software and storage into a single, finely-tuned integrated system that runs applications at their optimum performance capability.

That optimisation strategy is reflected in the new processor. The M7's most significant innovations revolve around what is known as "software in silicon," a design approach that places software functions directly into the processor. Because specific functions are performed in hardware, a software application runs much faster. And because the cores of the processor are freed up to perform other functions, overall operations are sped up as well.

The SPARC M7 design features 32 CPU cores for faster performance.

For example, one of the most exciting innovations in the M7 processor is known as its in-memory query acceleration engines. These design-specific units take over certain data-search functions from a database query, and those functions then get processed at a very high rate of speed. This dedicated functionality makes database queries perform much faster.

Such query acceleration "is done in a different way than anyone has done it before," said David Lawler, Oracle senior vice president for system product management and strategy. The M7 incorporates up to eight in-memory query acceleration engines.

Another significant M7 innovation is a feature known as application data integrity. This software-in-silicon functionality ensures that an application is able to access only its own dedicated memory region. This lets software programmers identify issues with memory allocation, which is advantageous in several ways.

Oracle expects it to improve the speed of Oracle's software development, and the resulting product quality, dramatically and that customers will benefit by running applications with memory that is always protected in production.

Also, it serves as a security feature. "If one particular piece of code is trying to read the data from another, the chip would stop it," said Renato Ribeiro, Oracle director of product management for SPARC Systems.

And because it is hardwired into the processor, the data integrity functionality does not affect the performance of the application. "It has next to no overhead," Lawler said.

Performance Boosts

100 GB/sec

Another innovation available on the new processor involves the ability to decompress data at very high speed. This is important especially in connection with Oracle's innovative in-memory database functionality.

Database performance is improved when the data being used can be loaded directly into server memory, which eliminates the latency in transferring data from external storage. However, to fit a large amount of data into server memory it must be compressed, and then decompressed on every database query. That decompression takes time and sucks up valuable processor resources—a classic bottleneck.

To address that constriction, Oracle engineers have incorporated a decompression acceleration engine onto the M7 processor. This hardwired unit runs data decompression at the full speed of the in-memory database: 100 GB/sec. That's equivalent to 16 decompression PCI cards, or 200 CPU cores, Lawler points out.

Another improvement in the M7 related to performance involves communication between two computers. Known as extreme low latency fabric for memory sharing, this hardware interconnection provides for messaging with sub-microsecond latency, which translates to "memory access across two machines as if it were local," says Lawler. This helps the performance of computers in a cluster.

Finally, the M7 processor features 32 cores in its design, which ups the processing horsepower from its predecessor, the M6, which has 12 cores. Less an innovation than a process improvement, it nonetheless affirms Oracle's commitment to making SPARC the most powerful processor in the industry.

Co-engineering Advantage

With its SPARC architecture, Oracle has an advantage over other enterprise vendors in that it can do engineering work at all levels of the computing stack: processor, operating system, middleware, database, applications, even software tools, specifically Java.

The SPARC M7 processor benefitted from that co-engineering, designed from the start with input from both Oracle's hardware engineers and its software developers. That approach is what enabled the innovative "software in silicon" strategy to come to fruition. "We looked at all of our software and identified the things that were the hardest" and then incorporated those into the processor, Lawler said.

The SPARC M7 is scheduled to be available sometime in calendar year 2015. Oracle intends the industry at large to benefit from its work. "We plan to make these functions available to other software vendors that would like to take advantage of them," said Ribeiro.

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