SUMMARY: Sparc vs Intel

From: 101 (
Date: Tue Jul 02 1996 - 12:09:37 CDT

Hi Folks,

    About one month ago I posted a question about Sparc vs Intel and performancevs cost. Below are the responses I received to this question. There is a wide diversity of opinion about this issue. Some of the main facts are:

    * Sparc machines are better engineered.
    * The various subsystems of Sparc machines have better integration.
    * The Intel CPU appears to give more horsepower form single tasks (speed).
    * The Sparc CPU gives more utility to multiuser environments.
    * IO is significantly better on the Sparcs due to bus design.

I would like to thank the following for their thoughtful replies:
Ningping Fan
Ira Childress
Martin Espinoza
Cecil Pang
Forrest Aldrich
Ralph Finch
John Heasley
Jeff Fisher
Kai O'Yang
Bill Krauss billk@LANcomp.COM

If you have any more comments, or additional or different information
available, or yoiu just want to yell at me, or yell in generally, please
drop me a line.

Thanks for your support,

Thomas \:)

My own personal ramblings:
    Several references were made concerning the 'maintenance' and
'administration' of PCs, generally implying they are cheaper. I do not
think they are cheaper to maintain. I find that installing and supporting
a PC takes considerable time. Each upgrade we would do would take a day,
Windows requires to much baby sitting during the load process, and users are
constantly losing files and asking you to find them, or asking you to explain
some little short cut they should have learned in their application class.
Also, I do think the amount of resources placed on a desktop business computer
are excessive. For our office (typical wordprocessing, small spreadsheets and
access to corporate Database) a user does not user or need: Floppy drive, 90%
of the 1G hard disk. They only use 5% of the code in the application, but
the app is so big, they need 16M, granted the cost has come down, but thats
like the spouse who says "look how much money we saved by buying xyz..."
Plus, while you can set up a nice server arrangement and tie in all of the
they still end up saving 300 files of 6 different program formats in one
directory on their harddisk, which you know is going to blow up. I do not
think that the PC way of doing things is the endall and be-all of computing.
    On the plus side, one thing I do like about PCs is that, while you
generally have to do a motherboard swap, that is an available option. When
I wanted to upgrade some Sparc 2s, I had to buy whole chassis (sorry, the
Weitek chips would not work in this case, although we do use a few). I have
upgraded original IBM AT chassis. Yes this does require almost a complete
gutting. The point is that, eventhough a PC chassis is very inexpensive (
box and power supply for under $100), it is an option, whereas to go from a
Sparc 2 to a Sparc 20, you had to buy a new chassis.

    RAID is the wave of the present for server boxes. The various type are
well defined and the hardware has matured. The Sparc products are still
way to expensive. PC based cards can be had for approx. $500.00. Hot swap
cabbies (SCSI) for $80.00. Then just get a box with enough bays, and some
cables, throw in what drives you want, and there you have it! I know this is
simplified. I recently checked with Integrix, they now list a box for
$8,500.00. They are getting closer, but... ...SunExpress had a product
comparison listing various RAID "solutions". Do people really spend 100K for
a 20G RAID box?

    I don't exactly know how Sparc SIMMs differ from PC SIMMs. I do know
that there is ECC memory, which allows the machine to correct memory errors
(up to a point). Parity lets you know you have an error. The PC world
now has EDO memory, not sure what that is, I think it is more like ECC type
technology, and accordingly more expensive than the generic 72 pin units.
Current prices in the PC world are around $80-90 per 8Megs, Integrix (which
I use because they are less expensive than sun) is around $160 per 8 Meg for

Last comment:
    I grew up in a manufacturing world and currently work for several
manufacturing businesses. My view of a vendor is that I will pay you for
your expertise, but don't try to make me pay for something that is really not
necessary. Sun tried to make the Sparc chip more popular and build a wider
market, great idea, but they always seems to have a way to keep something
proprietary, or pull some strings. Sun does not design memory, why should
they. The Sparc 2s used standard SIMMs, can't the other high end boxes?
Apple computer is a great example of a company thet violates this concept
repeatedly. When Apple produced the Mac in its toaster form, each new box,
while the same outside footprint, had a differnet motherboard configuration
on the inside. This lead to unique add in card designs to fit each model
in the series. I think this is an unnecessary waste. It does not add value
to the product line, but only works as a way to suck some extra money out
of the customers pocket. We all know where Apple is today.

>From Wed Jun 19 10:33 CDT 1996

        You ask tough questions ;-)

        There are some inherent design strengths of both the SPARC
        architecture and the bus and memory design of SPARC computers
        built by Sun. I do not think that I am qualified to offer an
        authoritative treatise on this, but someone at Sun (eg Hal Stern,
        or someone at your local office) should be able to provide you
        with this kind of information.

        In my opinion, the underlying problem is that "intel-based
        pcs" were never designed in a stringent engineering
        environment that focused on overall performance. The goal has
        always been the largest MHz number, or the number dejour,
        which in no way guarantees good or even reliable performance
        on something complex like a database.

        Databases require excellent disk I/O performance, which means
        fast busses well connected to CPU and memory *WITHOUT*
        interference from fancy non-standard, minimally-tested caching
        schemes. Databases also require excellent network performance,
        assuming many clients need to see the data. In my experience
        the CPU in a database server, although often 100% busy, is
        actually just 100% waiting for disk or network I/O. Faster
        CPUs wait faster or spin more while waiting ;-)

        The most compelling reason that I know to recommend Sun
        Microsystems servers (vs "PCs") is that all of the hardware is
        tested and is supportable. I have much experience with
        painful database recoveries and extended periods of repeated
        database corruption that ultimately resulted from a mis-match
        of third party hardware cobbled together to make a PC. This
        is especially true of the more powerful PCs, because they use
        many "undocumented", or "nonstandard" (whatever that means)
        pieces, usually involving multiple bus interfaces and caches.

        How much is downtime worth?


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****************************************************************************** >From Mon Jun 17 13:37 CDT 1996

A great issue, I have run Solaris on both machines.

1) Solaris/x86 is less stable then Solaris/SPARC including the pro-compiliers 2) RAID on x86 may not be supported by venders for Solaris.

If you can overcome these two problems. I bet SunSoft might have to shutdown their X86 line in order to keep their SPARC bussiness.

-- Ningping Fan, | Tel: 412-647-6992 F392 PUH | Fax: 412-647-8117 School of Medicine, | Email: Univ. of Pittsburgh, | Pittsburgh, PA 15213 | Respect is a virtue of humanity.

****************************************************************************** >From Mon Jun 17 13:10 CDT 1996

SPARC's are computational machines - real good at processing lots and lots of code. Depending on the size of your database, the Intel boxes will do just as nice a job since the majority of processing will be in the I/O. SPARC's can't ship anymore data through a 10 MB SCSI bus than Intel or through a 10 Mb ethernet connection.

If on the other hand, you have a huge database that needs to be sorted 16 different ways from Sunday, then you'd probably be better off with the SPARC.


******************************************************************************** * Ira Childress * Integrated Systems Solutions Corporation * * Systems Manager Integrator * An IBM Subsidiary * * ISSC/Comdata * * * Off 615/370-7662 FAX 615/370-7205 ******************************************** * * * * * Comdata Corporation * * * Transportation/Finance/Gaming * ********************************************************************************

****************************************************************************** >From Mon Jun 17 13:03 CDT 1996

My experience has been that as an end-user machine, a pentium running solaris is more than sufficient, and far cheaper than purchasing another sparc 2 or what have you - We get Pentium 133mhz machine with 32mb of ram and a 21" mag monitor for $3200.

However, as a server, you will often find that the machine just simply does not have enough I/O bandwidth. If you want to spread your disk resources across multiple servers, a P-166mhz with 64mb of ram and a PCI RAID of some sort will probably do you. If you want to put multiple scsi busses on one machine, you'll probably want to stick with sparc.

****************************************************************************** >From Mon Jun 17 13:02 CDT 1996


You are right Intel is way cheaper than SPARC.

The only problem I am facing is that my database software Sybase does not have a Intel version. So as most of the database vendor.

Therefore I am using Intel Solaris for Mail server, News Server and NFS server.

Acutually I am using PCI bus Ultra-SCSI on Intel 150MHz Pentium and the I/O is faster than the SPARC 5 70Mhz.


+--------------------------------+ | Cecil Pang | | Systems Design Specialist | | Westel Telecommunications Ltd. | | Email: | +--------------------------------+

"Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning."

****************************************************************************** >From Mon Jun 17 12:26 CDT 1996

Hi There...

Sparc machines and related hardware are "higher end" products. This doesn't necessarily mean they're better, IMHO. But they are definately more expensive and more suited to larger organizations who can afford to spend the extra $$$. Take a look at SunExpress's catalog and tell me you can find a good deal anywhere... you won't. Even though RAM prices are falling, SunExpress still charges a whopping 5k for 128k of RAM. Unacceptable.

Intel platforms are of course a different chip architecture and support different options than a Sparc. They are less-expensive to maintain and are more able to be utilized for other projects or operating systems with minimal hassel. You can purchase Solaris-X86 for this, also, though I've not seen it.

In short, I think the Intel platforms are the better long-term investment. The biggest quam I have with Intel-type platforms is that when the chips get faster, you have to get another motherboard. At least SUN thought to get a high-rated board so that the new chips would simply drop in and run.

That's my 2 cents.


****************************************************************************** >From Mon Jun 17 14:18 CDT 1996

We have done the same kind of thinking.

I can't give you any comparison numbers, because we don't have our Intel machines in, but we have decided to get a couple of pentium pro machines, install NT and Solaris, and compare speeds with our Sparc 20s and Ultras. My guess is the pentium pros will be comparable or a little behind the Ultras.

Ultimately we might switch to linux on Intel boxes, since linux now enjoys commercial support, and have boxes with the throughput of a brandname box at 1/4 the price.

****************************************************************************** >From Mon Jun 17 15:51 CDT 1996

look into the gandiva raid controller. but!! don't use micropolis drives, insist upon seagates or some other drive manufacturer.

you can get pricing and local reseller info from Open System Solutions @508.359.4248.


****************************************************************************** >From Tue Jun 18 03:12 CDT 1996

You might want to try getting ahold of somebody at (I don't have my ppp link up, or I'd look up the particulars). They're running a P175 with about 72? Gig of hard drive for an FTP Server. Running it on FreeBSD. They'll probably know the in's and out's of Raid on Intel-based hardware.

--------------- Jeff Fisher Gazette MIS Cedar Rapids, IA, US

Contrary to popular belief, Unix is user friendly. It just happens to be very selective about who it decides to make friends with.

****************************************************************************** >From Mon Jun 17 17:45 CDT 1996

Hi, I'm doing an evaluation of Oracle7 on Solaris x86 now. You can download a 90day trial software from I'm testing the database server on a P120 single cpu machine with only 32M memory and the response is pretty sluggish.

If you've got some pointers regarding database benchmarks, I'd love to hear.


****************************************************************************** >From billk@LANcomp.COM Mon Jun 17 16:52 CDT 1996

If you purchase the "Server" level license of Solaris, you will get SDS, or Solstice Disk Suite. This software provides RAID Level 0, 1, 0+1, and 5. You can then choose the disk subsystem of your choice. I it's a disk you can hang on the SCSI bus, you will be able to manage it with SDS.

When making your decision, keep in mind that there are MANY things besides price that oyu need to consider. On the surface, a PC based solution may look cheaper, but you need to realize that you are NOT comparing Apples to Apples. You need to look at bus speeds, the width of path to memory, cache speeds, etc. Depending on how you are utilizing the database systems (OLAP, OLTP, Data Warehousing) some or all of those items could be REAL important. (Also just how much memory you can put in a system.)

You also need to look at the architecture of the CPU. One thing that SPARC chips have, that to my understanding x86 processors do not, is context registers. When a CPU switches from one process to the next, it needs to save the "context" of the current process, and load the "context" of the next process. SPARC chips have anywhere from 32 on-board contexts (SPARCstation 2 I think) to several thousand. That means that when a context switch occurs, it will get the information from a register on the CPU rather than going out to memory, which will take much more time.

The bottom line is "look for the bottle-necks". If you merely look at processor speed, and don't look at the performance of all the system's components working together, you will get a false estimation of a machines capability. Sun has always built very balanced systems...

I've tried to be fairly unbiased with my info, but when asked, I'd recommend a SPARC based solution... Check with your database vendor and see what they would recommend...

Bill Krauss - Systems Engineer Email: Lan & Computer Integrators, Inc. Voice: 908-981-1991, Fax: 908-981-1858 242 Old New Brunswick Road -------------------------------------- Suite 200 | NSS# 37089 Piscataway, NJ 08854 |

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