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SPARC will fly: Your cheat sheet for cocktail banter at Oracle's upcoming shindig

Or a little historical insight for those not going

OpenWorld When reports emerged early in September that Oracle was shedding hundreds of workers, it might have been dismissed as just the latest in a series of such moves. What caught the attention of industry watchers was where the axe was falling. Sources indicated those being laid off included many of the engineers responsible for its SPARC processors and Solaris operating system.

Is it the end of the road for these venerable platforms?

Unpicking Big Red's plans can be tricky, as the firm is notoriously tight-lipped unless it is talking up its latest and greatest products, but the answer appears to be yes and no. The announcement of the latest SPARC M8 chips and systems ahead of its big Oracle OpenWorld conference in the first week of October in San Francisco, California, shows that SPARC is not being consigned to the knacker's yard just yet, while support for Solaris has been promised until at least 2034.

But there is a difference between pledging support for a product and continuing to invest in its future development, and this is where we think Oracle has finally drawn the line. SPARC and Solaris will continue for a while, but are now in reality little more than zombie products that the company is drastically cutting back resources for, and so they will slowly fade away as users gradually drift to other platforms, including Oracle's own cloud services.

Solaris speculation

"It's clear that over the last 12 months, Oracle has been reining in investment in SPARC and Solaris," Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst Andrew Butler told The Register.

"They laid off a number of people late last year – not enough to cause huge shockwaves or alarm their users, but enough to make it clear they are starting to look towards the endgame of the SPARC era," he added.

Rumours over the future of SPARC and Solaris were thus already swirling at the beginning of 2017, when Sun veteran and Oracle principal software engineer Eric Reid deemed it necessary to take to the blogosphere to counter the naysayers.

"We've been hearing a lot of talk about the demise of Solaris and SPARC recently. It's not at all remotely true, and you can rest assured that Oracle's commitment to both remain strong and focused going forward," Reid wrote.

The reason for the speculation was that Solaris 12 had disappeared from Oracle roadmaps and been replaced with "Solaris". At the same time, rumours began to circulate that Big Red was planning major layoffs in its hardware division.

"When the roadmap says SPARC next and Solaris next, this tells you that they are just kind of making it up as they go along, and they are really not wanting to be pinned down on delivering X, Y, or Z functionality at any particular date," Butler commented.

Then in August, the ominous news broke that John Fowler, Sun's Systems executive vice president, who was one of the few chiefs to stay on to lead Oracle's hardware business after the $7.4bn acquisition, had resigned and left the company. No reason for his departure was given, but it was a clear indication that all was not well.

This was followed at the start of September by tipoffs from Oracle staff that hundreds of workers had been given their marching orders, with engineers covering the Solaris operating system and SPARC silicon among their number. And, as The Register noted a few days later, Oracle filed a notice under California's Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) regulations confirming that the layoffs were from the Santa Clara offices formerly occupied by Sun Microsystems.

Reasons for the SPARC and Solaris decline are not difficult to discern. Intel-based systems can match SPARC on performance, and enterprise Linux distributions are capable of handling pretty much any workload that runs on Solaris.

This can be seen in the firm's steadily declining revenue from hardware. In the most recent financial year, Oracle reported hardware revenues of $4.15bn. For 2016 the figure was $4.67bn, in 2015 it was $5.2bn, and in 2014 $5.37bn.

There is a caveat to this, which is that with SPARC M7, Oracle started adding hardware capabilities to optimise the performance of Oracle-based application workloads. Dubbed "software in silicon", this includes features such as on-the-fly compression/decompression for in-memory databases. The upshot is that Big Red claims better performance when running Oracle workloads.

"As of the end of last year, we were telling our clients that SPARC could still make sense if you are running Oracle workloads, but it made progressively less sense if you were running any other kind of workload," Butler said.

"It's going to be harder and harder for Oracle to maintain a general performance parity. But they're not shooting for that – all they want to do is convince you that it remains a viable platform to run Oracle workloads, and that's why software in silicon is extremely important to them."

Cloud won't dampen SPARC

Another factor is the rise in cloud services, which have led to a decline in demand for enterprise servers across the board. The x86 vendors are trying to counter this by pitching systems at the cloud providers with their capacious bit barns, but Oracle does not really have this option with SPARC.

Far from being fazed by this, Oracle is enthusiastically pitching its own cloud services to customers, and has had SPARC-based services operating from its Oracle Cloud since last year.

"The company is obsessed with cloud, and it believes it can steer an ever larger proportion of the people running Oracle workloads to run those workloads using cloud services. It's this belief that is increasingly convincing the company that they no longer need to invest in on-premises infrastructure," said Butler.

In a webcast towards the end of September, Oracle UK principal consultant Dawar Ghaznavi made a familiar hybrid cloud pitch to customers, promising them that Oracle would provide them the flexibility to run their Solaris workloads behind their own firewall or on its cloud.

"We have SPARC in the public cloud today, and customers can choose to run on-premise, on a SPARC private cloud or on the Oracle public cloud. Because it is the same stack, customers can move around without migration costs," he claimed.

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