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Solaris vs. Linux: Framework for the Comparison

by Dr Nikolai Bezroukov


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5. Hardware: SPARC vs. X86

The strongest selling point of linux for enterprise server customers is actually not the OS per se, but the Intel-based hardware on which linux is running. Hardware that actually was created to run Windows OS :-). Intel wiped out competition both in desktop and server markets. And rising tide rises all boats. As Linux is mainly Intel OS on servers, it was major beneficiary of this "great wipe out".  So the key role in the rise of Linux on Intel servers does not belong to Linux kernel community. It belongs to Intel and Microsoft.

Sun's response to the dot com bubble burst was to invest in R&D while the market settled. And for some time they have has some success with their Opteron based technology( till probably mid May, 2006), although Sun brass always was sitting between two chairs and was never fully committed to Intel platform. But in late 2006 they (and AMD) were wiped out again by a new generation on Intel chips.  This time it looks they are not coming back.   Any look at SPECINT benchmarks leaves no doubt about the current situation. From this point of view UltraSparc is iether a history, or niche CPU. 

But let's look at the situation from a computer science standpoint. UltraSparc CPUs on Sun servers are slightly better integrated with the rest of hardware because they support much less of it, and less variety means more testing and better reliability. As simple as that.

The main advantage of Solaris as an OS (both on X86 and Sparc, but especially on UltraSparc) is that it is not Linux. The UltraSparc CPUs provide additional layer security via obscurity as this is a CPU that is not well known or used by modern rank-and-file hackers. Linux OS security is dismal against determined (and especially well financed) attackers, as recent exploits and fact of stolen credit cards and confidential databases show quite vividly. It is the most attacked Unix flavor, Microsoft of Unix world. So if you have a sensitive database, usage of UltraSparc looks like an interesting proposition, because PR cost of a single security breach makes comparison of the costs of Spark hardware and Intel hardware much less convincing.  Both MySQL and Oracle database works pretty reliably on UltraSparc, so the problem of "minor platform" with its inferior support from the vendor does not exists. 

Again, I would like to stress is that Linux is the most attacked Unix flavor, Microsoft of Unix worlds. And nothing can change this situation in foreseeable future.  UltraSparc is also not immune as both OS and applications can be successfully attacked (especially Java as it is cross platform), but it is in much better position to withstand ran of the mill attacks as the CPU has a different instruction set. 

The main advantage of Solaris as an OS (both on X86 and Sparc, but especially on UltraSparc) is that it is not Linux. The UltraSparc CPUs provide additional layer security via obscurity as this is a CPU that is not well known or used by modern rank-and-file hackers.

While really expensive (let's say 50% markup to the price of Dell) in comparison with Intel servers, Sun (now Oracle) midrange Intel servers usually handle well the most taxing enterprise loads (which does not mean as a compliment to UltraSparc, but simply means only that a typical enterprise loads are not very CPU intensive). SPECINT/SPECCPU-wise UltraSparc is a loser and nothing probably can change that. But in areas where security is important it remains a viable solution. 

In the past Sun used to have better price/performance positioning in its UltraSparc line, but this positioning was greatly eroded by recent lines of Intel  CPUs (the same fate as  IBM Power line and HP Itanium line -- the latter is from Intel ;-)  ). Only a security advantage (and a small stability advantage) are left. As John C. Shoemaker (Sun Microsystems's Executive Vice President and General Manager of Computer Systems from 1995 to 2002) recollected on his article A personal view of Sun Microsystems:

SPARC was never competitive. Its RISC architecture was an advantage in technical applications, and it made certain tradeoffs in input/output and cache sizes to achieve this targeted application success; however, it was not a competitive general purpose uni-processor, ever!

It was always about the system for Sun, not the chip. The system targeted technical application. When we pushed to commercial markets, it was through the implementation of a highly scalable vertical architecture, taking full advantage of a well-aligned strategy with the software developers at Sun. They were, and still are, brilliant at creating an amazingly robust and highly scalable OS (Solaris). No competitor could come close to Sun. We were able to attack aggressively and take the commercial market with system price/performance leadership on an open platform, running basically all (well over 12,000) major commercial and technical industry applications.

At the point in time when we began to achieve significant wins in commercial account applications, we acquired Cray Business Systems Division from Silicon Graphics (SGI) in 1995. Cray had previously chosen SPARC/Solaris, on a level playing field basis, as their best bet for entry into the commercial market. Cray BSD brought a world-class technical team to Sun, one with specific expertise in data center class systems design and quality requirements. This acquisition brought Sun a breakthrough 64-processor product with dramatic industry leading reliability, availability, scalability, and cost performance. Intel, IBM, and others had better uni-processor performance but, because they did not have Solaris, no one could scale above three or four processor systems. Microsoft made many promises to customers about future scalability, but those promises turned into nothing but delays.

Again, after more then 20 years of development if is fair to say, that as a server OS Linux flourishes mainly on Intel. It never achieved any significant success on RISC servers (Android so far has penetration only in tablets and smartphones; netbooks with Linux are mostly history) although IBM now is trying to change this situation pushing Linux on Power5 and potentially cannibalizing its own AIX sales (at least on low level servers). Actually for IBM running several competing with each other hardware and software offerings is nothing new and Linux serves as a great integrating OS as it can be run (in a castrated paravirtualized form) as a guest OS under both Power virtual machine and mainframe IBM/VM which is a real software classic. 

If you look on the general quality of the UltraSparc servers, Sun used to be a solid engineering company and Sun hardware engineers has a small but devoted camp of followers.

Reliability record of Sun UltraSparc servers used to be excellent even on entry level models, where problems with Intel servers are more common. As of summer 2014 we still can find multiple Sun V210/V240 in corporate datacenters running 12-15 years non-stop without single malfunction.  But truth be told recent generation of Intel servers also has a great reliability. Dell servers like PE 1950, PE 2950 also can run and actually run 10 years non stop. With the current quality of Intel servers from Dell and HP you can even use non-critical systems without hardware maintenance contracts. It's cheaper to replace hardware in case of failure that to pay annual maintenance on all servers.  Much like people used to do with Sun.  This way serious money can be saved in maintenance.  So in a way, hardware-wise,  Sun has its day under the sun, but it is gone. 

5.1.  UltraSparc is an expensive, slow,  but open CPU :-)

While an excellent CPU with advanced architecture, UltraSparc has higher price/performance ratio then either Intel  CPU offerings. Intel essentially wiped out competition on SPECINT (now SPECCPU) tests and Linux is direct beneficiary of this situation. In the past Sun tried to change this situation with the introduction of T1 CPU[Wikipedia] but newer Intel offerings did not leave Sun any chance. On SPECint2000/SPECfp2000 benchmarks only Fujitsu UltraSparc compatible CPUs are marginally competitive. That puts Sun UltraSparc hardware in large performance disadvantage on the low and midrange servers (up to 4 CPUs) in comparison with Intel hardware.

Still to the chagrin of Linux enthusiasts (especially rabid followers of GPL), Intel is a closed proprietary CPU, while UltraSparc T1 and some other CPUs are really open processors: on March 21, 2006, Sun made the UltraSparc T1 source code available under the GPL. You will probably never see this quote repeated on Linux kernel list ;-).  With some notable exceptions, those guys, including their fearless leader,  has real difficulties to face truth despite being open source enthusiasts.

To the chagrin of Linux enthusiasts (especially rabid followers of GPL), Intel is a closed proprietary CPU, while UltraSparc T1 are really open processors: on March 21, 2006, Sun made the UltraSparc T1 source code available under the GPL.

If we talk about openness (the pet theme of Linux lovers), then SPARC architecture in Sun's systems is more entitled to be called an open architecture than is anything that comes from Intel's fabs. And it's a pure hypocrisy (similar to Linus Torvalds despicable from hardware design openness standpoint stance in Transmeta) to ignore this fact for any open source evangelist. 

In the past the main advantages of UltraSparc T line are:

  1. Energy efficiency [now gone] : it consumes less energy then either Intel or Opteron and much less then IBM's Power5 CPUs.  This is probably not enough to make them noticeably more attractive for server farms in hosting environment where the margins are extremely thin and you need  many cheap units as well as the ability to upgrade them without incurring huge capital costs, but it is incentive for some large companies datacenters that run into air-conditioning or electricity supply limits to their growth as the move to a new building in such cases is a very expensive proposition.

  2. Fault tolerance [now matched by Intel] . Sun server hardware can do amazing things with faulty components calculating the number of faults pr 24 hours.  Almost any duplicate component can be switched off. Even low level Sun server like V240 can automatically disable bad memory chips, one faulty CPU or one burned power supply. In some sense it is close to a cheap cluster, but without cluster software complexity. And that's alone (long with the reduced complexity) worth quite a bit of money (I hate cluster software ;-)

    Sun servers also behave reasonably well after overheating: they shut down gracefully and usually are able to restart after cooling-off without any problems. That's important as central aid conditioning can go south in large datacenters in summer (sometimes due to electricity supply problems) and even with reserve generators might represent the weakest link as practice show that those reserve generators are not necessary switch on after the event :-).

  3. Cleaner architecture. Being big Endean CPU with RISC instruction set provides some complier level advantages in comparison with convoluted instruction set of X86 line. From CS point of view (and complier writers point of view) X86 CPUs architecture and instruction set are a horrible mess and always were. But with money even pigs can fly. 

  4. Better hardware-based stack protection [now gone, all modern Intel CPU has one]. From the security standpoint UltraSparc permit implementation of pretty tight stack overflow protection. Solaris 10 on Opteron also has this advantage  (in 64 bit edition. ).

  5. Partitioning [same is now true for Intel with the introduction of virtualization extensions] . Similar to high-end Sun SMP systems, the UltraSPARC T1 can be partitioned under Solaris 10.  Thus, several cores can be partitioned for running a single or group of processes and/or threads, whilst the other cores deal with the rest of the processes on the system.

While slower then recent Intel offerings, architecturally UltraSparc remains a very interesting microprocessor with unique (and very compiler friendly) organization of registers.  And as we mentioned before it is a big Endean microprocessor, which is actually the only right way to build microprocessors :-).

Intel's microprocessors are more of an industry commodity, than a standard. The term standard should be reserved for specifications that have received the imprimatur of an officially recognized standards body such as ANSI, the IEEE, the ISO, the IETF, or the W3C. When a technical specification for a protocol, programming language or other technology receives the endorsement of one of these organizations, that specification is considered to be ratified as a standard.  From this point of view SPARC is the industry standard, Intel X86 is not and will not be in the foreseeable future.

Also, if you think about Intel 8086 design, it was extended for way too long...  Only deep pockets of Intel allow this process to continue. AMD has done an excellent job of extending it to 64 bit, but old warts of initial 16 bit design are still present.

In is not accidental that in 2001 Moreover UltraSparc III  got prestigious Analysts Choice Award for Best Server/Workstation Processor by Microprocessor Reports):

PALO ALTO, CA -- January 22, 2001 -- Sun Microsystems, Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW) today announced that its 64-bit UltraSPARC[tm] III processor received MicroDesign Resources (MDR) Microprocessor Report 2001 Analysts Choice Award in the Best Server/Workstation processor category. Sun Microsystems accepted the award at MDRs second annual awards ceremony, Thursday, Jan. 18 at the Hyatt Saint Claire in San Jose, Calif.

The MDR awards confirm the top technology picks from the Microprocessor Reports analyst team, recognizing excellence in technology innovation, design and implementation. The Sun Microsystems, Inc. UltraSparc III processor won first place for Best Server/Workstation Processor in a competitive field of nominees which also included Intel's Itanium, IBM's Freeway for eServer z900, and Intel's Pentium III Xeon processors.

The prestigious MDR awards celebrate the companies and products that shaped the electronics industry in 2000. Microprocessors for servers and workstations do the heavy lifting in this industry. The immense processing requirements placed on this class of processors require them to incorporate many advanced features, said Max Baron, editor-in-chief and principal analyst, Microprocessor Report. Because of its advanced multiprocessing architecture, we gave the Sun UltraSparc III processor the Microprocessor Report 2001 Analysts Choice Award for Best Server/Workstation Processor.

Partially due to UltraSparc CPU architecture Solaris on UltraSparc scales very well on multi-CPU machines, compared to Linux. After 4 sockets) the difference in quality of SMP implementation became really noticeable, but now it is masked by multicore Intel CPUs (you can have 88 core server with, say 1TB of memory by using just 4 physical Intel CPUs/sockets).

Solaris 10 advantage of being a 64 bit OS, with large max file sizes and the ability to access huge amount of RAM without any special hacks was wiped out by new generation of Intel CPUs around 2003.

Still some niches do exist. For example contrary to common opinion running Web servers on Sun hardware make more sense now as level and viciousness of exploits increased several times and nothing, really nothing can prevent determined hacker from braking into a Linux server, given enough time and money. You need to be a member of three letter agencies to be in the same position for Solaris servers. And even here I have some doubts, not because this is difficult for NSA or CIA,  who has full access to Sun internal documentation and engineers, but because priorities of agencies such as NSA are firmly in Intel space. That's a great difference.  And with Trusted Solaris you have some pretty unique mechanisms of securing Unix. In a way, Solaris 10 is the only XXI century Unix.

The density of transistors lower, speed is lower, and price is higher for Sparc compared to X86 family of CPUs, but there is no need to exaggerate: there is some space to compensate a large part of the difference via the application architecture and the compiler. For most commercial application modern SPARC are adequate CPUs. Sun C/C++ compiler vs. GCC still is highly competitive and if application is open source, then typically D-trace can do wonders in qualified hands. Of course skeptic can tell me that instead of D-trace people running Linux on Intel can buy better CPUs, faster memory and use SSD harddrives in RAID-10 configurations. Yes this way you can beat many D-trace optimization ;-). It is difficult to argue against that. Still custom optimizations can often compete with brute force approach. And BTW JVM is also highly optimized for Sparc.

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