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I'm trying to compare an 2.1 GHz UltraSPARC IV+ to something I'm more familiar with, and Intel seems to be the benchmark.

What would be a comparable processor on the Intel side?

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As they are different architectures, maybe you could state the desired usage, as this may have a high impact on speed? Database? Web Server? Scientific Calculations? –  Michael Stum Jul 21 '09 at 16:15
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Agreed: without knowing the target workload, comparisons are meaningless. Heavily concurrent or single-threaded workloads? Processing or I/O bound? You need to understand what you intend to do with a given architecture before building it. –  esm Jul 21 '09 at 16:19
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10 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Sparc IV processors enjoy a supercomputer-like memory bus that has only been approached or equaled by the introduction of Core i7. As a result the are good at churning through large quantities of data (think database, large analysis) at a consistant rate. Actual Dhrystone benchmarks usually trail Intel.

UltraSPARC-T1 processors plow through parallel processing with lots of threads (think Java enterprise apps) well, due to their many cores and register windows, but don't have nearly as much floating point power as Sparc IV or Intel, since all 8 or 10 cores share only one floating point unit. UltraSPARC-T2/Plus processors have one FP unit per core.

Intel processors have tended to be better at satisfying the high interrupt rate of an individual GUI user (go figure), and have very good floating point as well. Recently the 4 Gigahertz boundary has forced Intel to go wide instead of deep, so the latest introductions have had more cores and more memory bandwidth and less advances in individual thread speed.

In other words, they are getting more Sparc-IV like. The latest Core i7 Xeons with both HT and multi-core are getting to be very much like a SPARC, though they don't have as many cores as a SPARC chip has register windows.

Most all of these processors are now I/O bound by disk access time, even with RAID involved. RAID usually increases latency on small accesses while greatly increasing throughput on long consecutive accesses.

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Aren't some of the IBM POWER chips running 5ghz now? How'd they get up there when no one else seems able to? –  Brian Knoblauch Aug 5 '09 at 17:57
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It's Intel's 4GHz barrier, not IBM's. :) –  kmarsh Aug 6 '09 at 12:18
    
Informative - but why are apps going to be i/o bound by disk access time? Unless your DB is in the terabyte region you are likely to be able to stage it nearly all in memory, and any disk flush waits will yield to other threads/processes which are runnable. –  polyglot Oct 29 '09 at 13:43
    
Exactly- while the application is blocking on that I/O, other threads are processes will be running- meaning that process (or thread) is bound by disk access time. –  kmarsh Nov 2 '09 at 13:07
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Really hard to get a valid comparison for general use. You'll have to go for specific applications. System design greatly impacts it too. I can tell you that when UltraSPARCIV+ was new, the new at the time Intel chip comparison went roughly like this (keep in mind that the IV+ version of SPARC is quite dated now):

  • SETI@Home (and other FP heavy stuff) on SPARC was much faster.
  • Heavy loaded multitasking felt smoother on the SPARC system (function of I/O?).
  • Simple apps/screen updates faster on Intel.
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Totally agree here - IO & FP heavy tasks the SPARC's will just plough through steadily - similar workload at an equiv Intel server and watch it basically just stop responding –  DisabledLeopard Jul 31 '09 at 1:56
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On our scientific work load, which, to be honest, has a lot of integer and I/O bits, we see about a factor of 2 faster for equal speed CPUs for x86 systems vs Sparc systems.

Now, some of that, no doubt, is the compiler. Gcc does a fairly good job of generating code for the x86 vs the Sun C compilers on the Sparc.

On my personal usage on the home systems I see just about the same speedup for cpu intensive tasks.

Your mileage, of course, may greatly vary. I liked sparc systems, it is sad to see Sun slowly die.

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There are lies, damned lies, and benchmarks.

That being said, a good place to start might be something like TPC, who put together a series of OLTP benchmarks that might give you some food for thought.

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As others have noted, this is not an apples to apples comparison. The UltraSPARC is highly multi-threaded. So, it will definitely fare well on certain types of workloads while the Intel processors have nothing close to the same level of concurrency.

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I tend to run various CPU bound Java application servers. So, to benchmark, I use the DaCapo benchmarking suite with the lusearch. In my testing, UltraSPARCs consistently suck compared to any x86 based CPU.

Consider this - at my work, we have a relatively recent SPARC Enterprise T2000. This runs the above Java benchmark in about the same time as my 3.5 year old Intel Core Duo Mac Book Pro. That's an old two core laptop on par with a new 16 core server.

Comparing a 16 core x86 machine with a 16 core SPARC, shows the x86 based one about 20 times faster. Yes, one can complain about problems with benchmarks, but for me, they are well correlated to the performance I see in the in my actual app servers, so I find them useful.

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Perhaps the question would be easier to answer if you rephrased it as "what is the comparably priced processor on the Intel side?"

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Well, one has to see this from an energy efficiency point of view. With 1,4 billion transistors in the current i7 Haswell vs. approx. 300 million in the old sparc iv+, I leave to the reader, which processor is more power efficient:

in the sun fire v490 two power supplies are required with an output of 800 W each, ergo 1600 W in total. The l3 cache here is 32mb. in an intel i7 computer as manufactured by lenovo (think pad with an i7 extreme edition), the power consumption is maximally 57 W.

Unless, one has a own power station in the garden, it is really not worth it to operate outdated machinery.

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You realize, of course, that it was current at the time this question was asked? –  Michael Hampton Jan 27 at 20:44
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In my opinion the x86 might seem faster (and might be ) but the difference is how the machine behaves under huge loads - in my experience Sparc machines were always very responsive - even under a total load while intel would grind to the halt in no time - if its for home wouldn't matter but if it is some critical stuff I would never ever trust a x86 machine. Sparcs are like work-horse intels like skinny race horse :)

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Links to bench marks might back up your opinion –  James A Mohler Dec 7 '12 at 17:09
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The most important point of sparc CPU is reliability... They work non-stop without any system failure more then a year... This is a breath taking reliability... They are mission critical processors... Generally x86 family processors has 1 or 2 failure during one year of operation time... So we need to restart the x86 servers minimum 4 times in a year for service reasons...

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If this were an an objective fact, 1-2 failures a year for every Intel CPU in my infrastructure would require my team to be grown by at least a third. Please refrain from contributing answers like this to questions that are approaching their five year anniversary. –  Andrew B May 23 at 1:11
    
SPARC cpu and other RISC processors(like intel itanium, IBM power) are referred as mission critical cpu, if you google the "mission critical server" you will see... On the other hand, WLF(work load factor) is an important criteria for server failure, System failure per year is directly proportional with WLF. If you are operating servers with low WLF, You can operate your servers 2 or 3 years without failure but in this case your servers are dissipating energy... If you are operating servers with high WLF, you may have 1, 2 system failure per year... –  CMDody May 23 at 11:09
    
Those would be great details to edit into your answer. As it stands, it states that x86 processors fail 1-2 times a year as an unqualified statement. (and we have many clusters with load consistent load which would beg to differ) –  Andrew B May 23 at 15:28
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