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Solaris vs. Linux: Framework for the Comparison

by Dr Nikolai Bezroukov


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High End Servers

Large servers involve cutting edge technology not only in CPUs and memory area ( IBM mainframes has memory protection in 1962 and VM capabilities in 1968) but also speed of I/O and its organization (actually from the beginning mainframes peripherals were connected to central Unit with a special network and each peripheral has its own CPU capable for direct memory transfer into predetermined area of main processing unit memory). 

This is the area where open source development is probably least effective and the pool of users is relatively small. Still it can help as IBM experience with Share and its brilliant move of converting VM/CMS into VM/Linux clearly demonstrated. Also here like with buyers of luxury cars several metric important to middle class segment such as the price of gas (which corresponds to the price of electricity consumption) and insurance costs (with corresponds to maintenance fess) generally does not matter: An organization which can buy those servers definitely can afford the current price of electricity and maintainance.  The main consumers of mainframe style computers are large financial institutions and government, especially government funded research centers and universities.

In the past high end servers used to have least 64G of RAM. Now 64 GB of RAM can be installed on medium or even small server. So as of 2012 we can talk about minimum plank of 256 GB for high end servers. They  usually are capable to have terabyte of RAM or more. 

Servers of this class often have up to 4T of memory (for example Power 690 G7). Dell don't even exist in that universe.

HP does have eight socket Intel servers which with newer Intel 10-core CPUs can have 80 cores. Still the area is conservative and IBM Power ( and, of course, their mainframe line) and Sun (now Oracle) are still top hardware vendors in this area of deployment despite the fact that Intel boxes are considerably cheaper (you can buy a good HP 680 G7 configuration with eight 10 core CPUs and 265 GB of RAM for approximately $60K). 

Until version 2.6 Linux just cannot compete on its own on high end outside several highly specialized areas (only SGI has limited success in this area with their highly modified fully 64-bit Linux). The situation dramatically improved with version 2.6 that provides more or less full 64-bit support, and it somewhat changed the dynamics of this flat (or even shrinking) and very conservative market, where each previous investment strongly suggests the next.  After all linux in 2011 is 20 years old OS, an operating system that might well be close or even past its prime.

Despite wider linux adoption in this segment, there is an important "counter-linux" trend: popularity of virtualization which represents growing share of this segment. VMware is the OS of choice here. Also Sun and IBM still promotes their proprietary OSes in their RISK CPUs and their own proprietary virtualization solutions.  HP is now hampered by Oracle decision to stop support of Itanium for all future products (now reversed by the court, althouth the decition probably will be appealed).

IBM remain especially competitive hardware-wise with its Power 6 servers (IBM Power Systems Comparisons Performance):

 Highend Systems Performance  1
  SPECint_rate2006 SPECfp_rate2006 SPECjbb2005 2-tier SAP SD
64-core IBM Power 595 2,080 2,110 3,272,999 35,400
128-core HP Integrity Superdome 1,650 1,480 2,054,864 30,000
64-core HP Integrity Superdome 824 745 No Benchmark 9,265
128-core Sun SPARC Enterprise M9000 1,290 1,230 No Benchmark No Benchmark
64-core Sun SPARC Enterprise M9000 650 636 No Benchmark No Benchmark
144-core Sun Fire E25K 1,230 No Benchmark 2,105,264 10,175

The 64-core Power 595 server outperformed the 64-core HP Integrity Superdome server by at least 2 Ĺ to 1 and the 64-core Sun SPARC Enterprise M9000 server by over 3 to 1 on processor intensive benchmarks. Even when the Superdome and M9000 servers were tested with twice the number of cores, the Power 595 server was faster by 18% up to as much as 71%. 71% faster than a system with double the cores is a very impressive result

I would like to stress that linux shortcomings are most visible in this particular segment of the market.  This is simply because this segment of the market is defined by forces and requirements that are completely outside of the ream of regular open source developers. First of all this is issues related to optimizing I/O bandwidth.

Power 595
Memory (GB)
Memory BandWidth (GB/s)
I/O BandWidth (GB/s)
Memory (GB) per core
Memory BandWidth (GB/s) per core
I/O BandWidth (GB/s) per core

One of the key issues with this market is the level of compatibility as the investments both in hardware and software are simply huge. And software on big iron boxes usually powers really critical for the firm applications, applications that are difficult to move due to inherent risks on any migration or due to the long history of their development for a particular platform. Sun has an excellent record in maintaining compatibility and that's why Sun successfully competes with IBM for the share of shrinking IBM's mainframe market. It was the necessity to counter Sun's advances into this space that were one of the possible motivation of IBM's brilliant move with converting VM/CMS into VM/Linux (see IBM "100 featherless penguins in the steel VM cage" road show ).  In a sense linux was used by IBM as a Trojan horse to stall Sun advances into their mainframe turf. And one of the primary attraction of the UltraSparc is its ability to scale from small 1U servers all the way up to large supercomputers.  That means that an old $100 Ultra-5 desktop can be used for developing application that will run on huge 64 CPU mainframe on exactly the same operating system. The same is now true for linux but this situation occurred only recently.  Previously vendors had a special versions of those distributions for high end machines. 

Solaris 8,9 and 10 are generally biased toward multi-CPU servers and are more efficient on servers that contain large number of  CPUs (Solaris scaled to 64 CPUs in 1996, in version 2.5.1 which is amazing if you remember the level of hardware in 1996; for example a typical PC at this time used to be equpped with 486 CPU or Pentium 90 or 133 MHz CPU, 64M of memory and 1G or less harddrive). Servers were of couse bigger but still nobody can even dream about 15 GB of RAM and 1 TB of disk storage (althouth SAN were availble at the time they were very expensive).

The side effect is that as we noted above is that Solaris is rather slow on uniprocessor machines. From what I have heard, with the added code from UnixWare which SUN bought, Solaris 10 should perform better on uniprocessor and dual processor configurations, but still on those configurations Linux might continue to have an edge, as this is Linux major hardware base.  But as the number of CPUs exceeds 4 Solaris advantage grows and on 8 CPUs or more Solaris might well be the preferable OS.  IBM does has impressive hardware (Power5-based servers) that can compete with Sun's UltraSparc line and impressive (although rather strange with many proprietary extensions and non standard features) flavor of Unix to compete with Solaris, but as I notes above it is sitting between three to five chairs. HP also is sitting between two chairs and in addition has a set back due to PR problems with Itanium.

Linux now can run on SGI computers with more CPUs then Sun largest machines (SGI Altix)  but those servers are very rare and use NUMA architecture (I actually do not understand the difference very well and suspect that most of SMP servers with large number of CPUs also has non-uniform memory access). 

Another factor is that this segment represents "big money" and none of those companies that promote linux is very excited about moving Linux in this segment. IBM limits Unix deployment to VM/CMS where linux actually is playing the role of DOS. Formally Linux can run on large IBM Power boxes. But despite all real and PR-level love of Linux  IBM does its best to persuade you to buy their huge SMP boxes with AIX. And not without a reason. Full support of complex mainframe-style hardware is available only with AIX. So the possibility of running Linux on those boxes is just nice little PR trick. It will rarely happen. 

HP with Itanium as a recognized dead end CPU does promote linux on its large boxes. But Red Hat already bailed out and only Suse is available.

Moreover the fact that both IBM and HP have internally competing lines of product undermines their competitive position with Sun. Large Power boxes with AIX are actually cannibalizing IBM's mainframe market in a way very similar to Sun and I know several large corporation that replaced their aging mainframes with AIX boxes for running SAP/R3 despite all those exiting stories about VM/Linux. And I would like to stress it again that among major mainframe market players only Sun comes clean with "monotheistic" ("there no other OS then Solaris and Sun is the vendor")  religion and like in case of major world religions that translates into important marketing and technical advantages :-).  While IBM move from VM/CMS to VM/Linux was simply brilliant, their positioning of AIX is very confusing: they constantly talk about linux and try to sell you AIX.

While UltraSparc-based large SMP configurations do not own many SMP sensitive benchmarks records, as of June 2006 they still have respectable performance. For example on SPECjbb2005 ( Java performance benchmarks), Fujitsu PRIMEPOWER at 128 cores gets  respectable 1,251,024 running Solaris which is comparable with Altix 3700 BX2 (128P 1600 MHz Itanium 2) 1,828,349 which currently holds the record. Sun's own offerings (Sun Fire E25K) are getting over one million on this benchmark (1164995 to be exact).

The same picture is true for TPC-H transaction benchmarks where in 3,000 GB category Sun E25K has the fifth best result and in 10,000 GB category Sun is the leader.  Note that there is no IBM mainframes among leaders in this benchmark. Only Power5-based servers (clustered IBM eServer p5 575 in 10,000 GB category) represent "state of art" IBM's competitors to Sun.  HP has a very good performance numbers but costs per transaction are three times higher.

Here are selected  transactional benchmarks  relevant to our discussion (all of them are as of  June, 2006).

1,000 GB Results
Rank System QphH Price/QphH System Availability Database Operating System Date Submitted Cluster
1 HP ProLiant DL585 G1 10,493 13.85 US $ 03/02/06 Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Enterprise x64 Edition Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Enterprise x64 Edition 03/02/06 N
2 NovaScale 5160 17,059 25.48 US $ 05/08/06 Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Enterprise Edition 64bit Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition 11/04/05 N
3 SunFire V490 4,367 31.17 US $ 01/05/06 Sybase Sybase IQ 12.5 Sun Solaris 10 01/05/06 N
4 NovaScale 5160 13,769 32.29 US $ 12/07/05 Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Enterprise Edition 64bit Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition 07/05/05 N
5 IBM eServer xSeries 346 53,451 32.80 US $ 02/14/05 IBM DB2 UDB 8.2 SUSE LINUX Enterprise Server 9 02/14/05 Y


3,000 GB Results
Rank System QphH Price/QphH System Availability Database Operating System Date Submitted Cluster
1 IBM eServer xSeries 346 54,465 32.34 US $ 08/15/05 IBM DB2 UDB 8.2 Suse Linux Enterprise Server 9 05/18/05 Y
2 HP BladeSystem ProLiant BL25p cluster 64p DC 110,576 37.80 US $ 06/08/06 Oracle Database 10g R2 Enterprise Edt w/Partitioning Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 ES 06/08/06 Y
3 Unisys ES7000 Orion 440 Enterprise 26,246 44.58 US $ 05/05/06 Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Enterprise Itanium Ed. Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Itanium Ed SP1 11/16/05 N
4 IBM eServer p5 595 100,512 53.00 US $ 03/01/06 Oracle 10g Enterprise Ed R2 w/ Partitioning IBM AIX 5L V5.3 09/19/05 N
5 Sun Fire[TM] E25K server 105,430 54.87 US $ 01/27/06 Oracle Database 10g R2 Enterprise Edt w/Partitioning Sun Solaris 10 01/27/06 N


10,000 GB Results
Rank System QphH Price/QphH System Availability Database Operating System Date Submitted Cluster
1 Sun Fire[TM] E25K server 108,099 53.80 US $ 01/23/06 Oracle 10g Enterprise Ed R2 w/ Partitioning Sun Solaris 10 11/29/05 N
2 IBM eServer p5 575 104,100 61.17 US $ 08/15/05 IBM DB2 UDB 8.2 IBM AIX 5L V5.3 05/20/05 Y
3 HP Integrity Superdome Enterprise Server 49,104 118.13 US $ 03/25/04 Oracle Database 10g Enterprise Edition HP UX 11.i, 64-bit Base OS 01/05/04 N
4 HP Integrity Superdome Enterprise Server 86,282 161.24 US $ 04/06/05 Oracle Database 10g Enterprise Edition HP UX 11.i V2 64 bit 10/07/04 Y

In April 2007 Sun confirmed its TPC-H Data Warehousing World Record. The Sun Fire E25K server has achieved new world-record results on the TPC-H data warehousing benchmark at the 3 Terabyte scale factor for both overall performance and single-system price/performance. The TPC-H benchmark was run on a 72-way 1.8 GHz UltraSPARC IV+ processor- based Sun Fire E25K with Sun StorageTek 6140 arrays, running Solaris 10 and Oracle Database 10g with Automatic Storage Management. The benchmark measures high-load multiple query throughput as well as single query performance. The Sun Fire E25K server outperformed the best competitor non-cluster system, the IBM p5-595 by 14% and had the best price/performance of the top six performing systems. 

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Groupthink : Two Party System as Polyarchy : Corruption of Regulators : Bureaucracies : Understanding Micromanagers and Control Freaks : Toxic Managers :   Harvard Mafia : Diplomatic Communication : Surviving a Bad Performance Review : Insufficient Retirement Funds as Immanent Problem of Neoliberal Regime : PseudoScience : Who Rules America : Neoliberalism  : The Iron Law of Oligarchy : Libertarian Philosophy


War and Peace : Skeptical Finance : John Kenneth Galbraith :Talleyrand : Oscar Wilde : Otto Von Bismarck : Keynes : George Carlin : Skeptics : Propaganda  : SE quotes : Language Design and Programming Quotes : Random IT-related quotesSomerset Maugham : Marcus Aurelius : Kurt Vonnegut : Eric Hoffer : Winston Churchill : Napoleon Bonaparte : Ambrose BierceBernard Shaw : Mark Twain Quotes


Vol 25, No.12 (December, 2013) Rational Fools vs. Efficient Crooks The efficient markets hypothesis : Political Skeptic Bulletin, 2013 : Unemployment Bulletin, 2010 :  Vol 23, No.10 (October, 2011) An observation about corporate security departments : Slightly Skeptical Euromaydan Chronicles, June 2014 : Greenspan legacy bulletin, 2008 : Vol 25, No.10 (October, 2013) Cryptolocker Trojan (Win32/Crilock.A) : Vol 25, No.08 (August, 2013) Cloud providers as intelligence collection hubs : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2010 : Inequality Bulletin, 2009 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2008 : Copyleft Problems Bulletin, 2004 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2011 : Energy Bulletin, 2010 : Malware Protection Bulletin, 2010 : Vol 26, No.1 (January, 2013) Object-Oriented Cult : Political Skeptic Bulletin, 2011 : Vol 23, No.11 (November, 2011) Softpanorama classification of sysadmin horror stories : Vol 25, No.05 (May, 2013) Corporate bullshit as a communication method  : Vol 25, No.06 (June, 2013) A Note on the Relationship of Brooks Law and Conway Law


Fifty glorious years (1950-2000): the triumph of the US computer engineering : Donald Knuth : TAoCP and its Influence of Computer Science : Richard Stallman : Linus Torvalds  : Larry Wall  : John K. Ousterhout : CTSS : Multix OS Unix History : Unix shell history : VI editor : History of pipes concept : Solaris : MS DOSProgramming Languages History : PL/1 : Simula 67 : C : History of GCC developmentScripting Languages : Perl history   : OS History : Mail : DNS : SSH : CPU Instruction Sets : SPARC systems 1987-2006 : Norton Commander : Norton Utilities : Norton Ghost : Frontpage history : Malware Defense History : GNU Screen : OSS early history

Classic books:

The Peter Principle : Parkinson Law : 1984 : The Mythical Man-MonthHow to Solve It by George Polya : The Art of Computer Programming : The Elements of Programming Style : The Unix Haterís Handbook : The Jargon file : The True Believer : Programming Pearls : The Good Soldier Svejk : The Power Elite

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Manifest of the Softpanorama IT Slacker Society : Ten Commandments of the IT Slackers Society : Computer Humor Collection : BSD Logo Story : The Cuckoo's Egg : IT Slang : C++ Humor : ARE YOU A BBS ADDICT? : The Perl Purity Test : Object oriented programmers of all nations : Financial Humor : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2008 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2010 : The Most Comprehensive Collection of Editor-related Humor : Programming Language Humor : Goldman Sachs related humor : Greenspan humor : C Humor : Scripting Humor : Real Programmers Humor : Web Humor : GPL-related Humor : OFM Humor : Politically Incorrect Humor : IDS Humor : "Linux Sucks" Humor : Russian Musical Humor : Best Russian Programmer Humor : Microsoft plans to buy Catholic Church : Richard Stallman Related Humor : Admin Humor : Perl-related Humor : Linus Torvalds Related humor : PseudoScience Related Humor : Networking Humor : Shell Humor : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2011 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2012 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2013 : Java Humor : Software Engineering Humor : Sun Solaris Related Humor : Education Humor : IBM Humor : Assembler-related Humor : VIM Humor : Computer Viruses Humor : Bright tomorrow is rescheduled to a day after tomorrow : Classic Computer Humor

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