It is generally accepted as common knowledge that the high-end RISC server vendors—IBM and Oracle—have been bleeding market share in favor of high-end Intel Xeon based servers. Indeed, the RISC market accounts for about 150k units while the x86 market has almost 10 million servers. About 5% of those 10 million units are high-end x86 servers, so the Xeon E7 server volume is probably only 2-4 times the size of the whole RISC market. Still, that tiny amount of RISC servers represents about 50% of the server market revenues.

But the RISC vendors have finally woken up. IBM has several Power7+ based servers that are more or less price competitive with the Xeon E7. Sun/Oracle's server CPUs have been lagging severely in performance. The UltraSPARC T1 and T2 for example were pretty innovative but only performed well in a very small niche of the market, while offering almost ridicously low performance in any application (HPC, BI, ERP ) that needed decent per-thread performance.

Quite surprisingly, Oracle has been extremely aggressive the past few years. The "S3" core of the octal-core SPARC T4 launched at the end of 2011 was finally a competitive server core. Compared to the quad-issue Westmere core inside the contemporary Xeon E7 , it was still a simple core, but gone were the single-issue in-order designs of the T1 and T2 at laughably low clock speeds. No, instead, the SUN server chip received a boost to an out-of-order dual-issue chip at pretty decent 3GHz clocks. Each core could support eight threads but also execute two threads simultaneously. Last year, the Sparc-T5, an improved T4, had twice as many cores at 20% higher clocks.

As usual, the published benchmarks are very vague and are only available for the top models, the TDP is unknown, and the best performing systems come with astronomic price tags ($950,000 for two servers, some networking, and storage... really?). In a nutshell, every effort is made to ensure you cannot compare these with the servers of "Big Blue" or the x86 competition. Even Oracle's "technical deep dive" seems to be written mostly to please the marketing people out there. A question like "Does the SPARC T5 also support both single-threaded and multi-threaded applications?" must sound particularly hilarious to our technically astute readers.

Oracle's nebulous marketing to justify some of the outrageous prices has not changed, but make no mistake: something is brewing among the RISC vendors. SUN/Oracle is no longer the performance weakling in the server market, some IBM Power systems are priced quite reasonably, and the Intel Xeon E7—still based on the outdated Westmere Core—is starting to show its age. Not surprisingly, it's time for a "tick-tock" update of the Xeon E7. The new Xeon E7 48xx v2 is baked in a better process (22nm vs 32nm) and comes with 2012's "Ivy Bridge" core, enhanced for server/IT markets to become "Ivy Bridge EX".

Meet the New Xeon E7 v2
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  • Kevin G - Monday, February 24, 2014 - link

    With POWER8 due out later this year, I suspect they'll be updating their old benchmarks with the newer hardware.

    The real question is why hasn't IBM ever submitted benchmarks for their z-series mainframes? Performance data there is very lacking. Though z-series costumers tend to fall into two groups: legacy mainframe applications and those who desire ultimate RAS regardless of the performance.
  • Phil_Oracle - Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - link

    Yes, we shall see what Power8 delivers and when.. Its already a year late according to IBM's "3-year cadence". Power7 is 4 years old this month! As for Mainframe, its not about performance, it’s about uptime but at some point, you can get uptime through clustering and redundancy and then performance becomes the issue. We once did a POC comparing performance of latest Mainframe vs SPARC M6 and we estimated SPARC M6-32 to be 2-3x higher MIPs! as you can imagine, customer is migrating.
  • Kevin G - Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - link

    Everyone has been suffering delays with chips it seems. Intel even with their process advantage looks to be a 9 month to a year beyond schedule for their 14 nm roll out. IBM/TSMC/GF/Samsung are similarly behind in their roll out of 22/20 nm class logic.

    There has been a desire for ages to get off of mainframes in some industries. Reliability is 'good enough' and performance is better but the reason some don't migrate is simply software costs. I used to work in such a shop and the mainframe hanged around due to the extensive cost of porting and validating all the legacy software. Also 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' was a theme at that place and well, the mainframe was never broken. I figure that many main frame shops fall into that category.

    A decked out M6-32 out running a mainframe in some tests by 2x within reason for some CPU tests. I'm more curious as to what specific workloads they were. In IO bound tests, the mainframe is still competitive due to raw amount of coprocessors and dedicated hardware thrown into the niche. Flash in the enterprise have helped narrowed the IO gap significantly but I don't think it has managed to surpass the ancient mainframe architecture.
  • PowerTrumps - Monday, February 24, 2014 - link

    Probably because most of their numbers have held up by and large to the competition. Unlike Sun SPARC and now Oracle SPARC which had disappeared from the benchmark scene for years with T1-T3 and most Fujitsu based servers. Oracle had cherry picked obscure benchmarks with T4 and now with T5 they have had a lot to make up. So, although you make it sound impressive let's not forget the past and the gap that needed to be filled.
  • Phil_Oracle - Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - link

    I'm a 15 yr Sun veteran now at Oracle so yes, I agree that in past, with older generation SPARC, especially the first generation T-Series, Sun only benchmarked where the T-Series did well and avoided benchmarks where it didn't as it was designed for web tier workloads. That was 5 generations ago! But that’s my point. A vendor isn't going to publish a poor or worse looking result that previous version so every vendor "cherry picks" as you say, Not having a benchmark tells me that either the previous version is better, new version isn't that much better or its worse (whether in throughput, per/core, etc). In any case, the more benchmarks, the better sign that its leading.. And while SPARC T4 was really the first Oracle SPARC developed processor, it caught up to competing CPUs, and with SPARC T5 and even SPARC M6, its hard to argue that SPARC T5 is not leading. With 16 x cores, 8 x threads/core @ 3.6GHz, and glue less scalability to 8-sockets, and SPARC M6 @ 12-cores, 8 x threads/core up to 32-sockets and now almost a year old, Intels latest Xeon Ivybridge-EX has finally caught up, but in certain areas, like DB and middleware performance, still lacking in benchmark proof points to show its superior. And as for Power8, well, we'll just have to wait and see what the systems will deliver and when. Clearly they are aiming at SPARC for high end, now that Itanium is all but dead, and on entry-mid range, competing against Xeon.
  • thunng8 - Friday, February 21, 2014 - link

    Great for intel that they have finally marginally overtaken a several year old IBM box in the sap sd benchmark. Only trouble is the 2.5x faster POWER8 (compared to POWER7) is coming in the next few months.
  • extide - Friday, February 21, 2014 - link

    Keep in mind that IBM POWER Chips are typically 200-250W TDP Chips. So yeah, on a performance per watt scale, these are quite impressive!
  • Kevin G - Friday, February 21, 2014 - link

    POWER7 is 200W and POWER7+ is 180W. Still higher than Intel but not as bad as you'd think.
  • JohanAnandtech - Saturday, February 22, 2014 - link

    Do you have a source for that? It is pretty hard to find good info on those CPUs. Or I have missed it somehow.
  • Kevin G - Saturday, February 22, 2014 - link

    IBM, like Intel, bins chips by power consumption. It looks like there are indeed 250W POWER7's but they do scale down to 150W.

    800W MCM for super computing, 200W POWER7 die @ 3.83 Ghz
    The final shipping speed was 3.83 Ghz which falls into the 3.5 to 4.0 Ghz range target in the article.

    250W for high end boxes & 150W for blade systems:
    Note that this was an early IBM paper and that 300W per socket figure could have been provisioning for future dual die POWER7+ modules

    250W for POWER7 @ 4.0 Ghz and 250W for POWER7+ @ 4.5 Ghz:

    I'm trying to find the source to the 180W POWER7+ figure. The difficulty is that it appeared in a discussion about Intel's Poulson Itanium which consumes 10W less.

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