[SUMMARY] sparc-intel comparison

From: Manesh, Nasser (CAP, PTL) (Nasser.Manesh@penske.com)
Date: Fri Aug 11 2000 - 08:42:47 CDT

Thanks a lot to countless people who responded, including but definitely not
limited to:

Bill Hathaway,
Marcelino Mata,
Nate Itkin,
John Sullivan,
Ross Lonstein

=========== original post =================
It's a long time I have not been involved with intel processors, so I have
no idea what kind of intel/AMD processor gives you roughly the same
performance as a cuurent SPARC cpu. I just need some rules of thumb...
Say, an ultra5 can come with an UltraSPARC 360MHz. What is the equivalent
in Intel/AMD world? Or put it this way, given an AMD Athlon 700MHz, what
kind of SPARC box matches the performance? Any ideas/pointers are

-- second post -- update
Everybody's telling me that it depends on the application, and yep, you're
absolutely right. I could have been more specific. While I received some
greate info about the cpus, let's consider this more practical scenario that
I'm facing with:

I need a box for a small business, to run DNS, web servers, email server,
all those usual stuff. Given that an athlon 700MHz with 256MB RAM running
Win2000 can do the job, and given that the athlon box can be bought for
$1000, what kind of SPARC box I can suggest to replace the wintel solution
with a Solaris solution and gaining the stability of Sun hardware while
keeping the expenses in a good range?

With the same amount of RAM, an Ultra5 can be bought for about $1700-1900.
Does it worth it? Or I should go for an Ultra1 or even SS20? I need to
maintain the same performance that athlon box offers.

Almost everybody says I'd better go with Intel Architecture for this small
situation and put Solaris x86 on it. Ultra5, to my surprises, is not as
popular as I expected among people who answered. Main issues are slow IDE
and packaging of the box that makes it hard to maintain.

About the MHz-to-MHz cpu comparison, I got these ideas in summary:

- SPARC and IA have same performance on integer ops but SPARC is about
30-40% ahead on floating point ops.
- For overall system throughput you should also consider disk I/O bandwidth,
memory speed, O/S.
- See these sites for benchmarks:


> I also quoted a few answers with more information below in case you're
> interested in seeing them.
> Nasser K. Manesh
> UNIX System Administrator/Webmaster
> Penske Technology Services
> Email: nasser.manesh@penske.com
> Voice: (610) 796-6527
> Fax: (610) 796-4387
        It depends a lot on what performance means to you. For small
computational programs (i.e., programs that fit into a processor's
cache), my experience shows that a SPARC is roughly the same speed
as an Intel processor for integer apps (a 300 MHz SPARC is approx.
equal to a 300 MHz PII); roughly 1.5x as fast for floating point
operations (300 MHz SPARC = 450 MHz PII).

        In general, the SPARC IIi CPUs are very similar to equivalent
speed PIIs or PIIIs, and the SPARC IIs (not the i series) will be
similar to the equivalent speed Xeon - again, for integer ops.

        Once you start looking at other parameters, like memory
bandwidth (caches can't hold everything!) and I/O throughput, the
comparisons are vastly different - the Intel P3 with a 133 MHz bus
has a theoretical throughput of 1066 MB/s (it's a 64-bit memory
path), where a Sun Ultra60 or higher will use 100 MHz x 256 bits,
or 3200 MB/s. For I/O, the Ultra AXmp systems we use support 4
separate 64-bit PCI busses (2 at 66 MHz), where the most powerful
Xeon system we could find had only two separate 33 MHz (64-bit) PCI
busses - the SPARC systems can theoretically pump six times as much
data in or out as the quad Xeon. Of course, this is only useful if
you NEED such throughput.

        So it really depends on what you want to use the machine for.
If it's for a workstation or small network router, or even a
departmental server, by all means use the AMD/Intel - we have many
Solaris x86 and Linux boxes (and a few Win2000s) here just for such
purposes. Even a "larger" server could well be served by the Intel
architecture, as long as you are aware of the I/O limitations. But
for a very large server (a web server also running Oracle, for
instance), you'll probably see a BIG difference with a SPARC.

        For Intel (or AMD) based servers, a few pointers - the O.S.
will only be as stable as the hardware, so you need to find a
manufacturer that uses good quality motherboards, memory, etc., and
knows how to keep the system and drives cool. The most common
failures we've seen on Intel systems are power supplies and fans -
using good quality components there is critical, but not much more
expensive than using the cheap components (and certainly LESS
expensive in the long run!) And of course, SCSI will generally give
you MUCH better overall throughput for a server than any IDE.

        Hope this helps!

John Sullivan jgs@netgenics.com
        Honestly, I'm not aware of any Sun hardware in that price
range that would be significantly more stable - the Ultra 5 and 10
use a standard PC ATX power supply (in the past year, one of our
U5s needed a new power supply already), and moving to an obsolete
model Sun may be more trouble in the long run. The U5 and U10 are
good boxes, but Sun's IDE implementation will, frankly, be MUCH
slower than the UltraDMA IDE used by any modern PC equipment. We
have three U5s here which have SCSI drives and controllers; these
work very well, but it's hard to find inexpensive Symbios SCSI
controllers anymore.
        I'm not sure what to recommend, other than getting the AMD
and using Solaris anyway (at $75, still less expensive than Win2000
after all!) If you decide to go down this route (and the politics
in some departments may preclude that, I understand - I don't know
the environment there), you may be interested in one of the tests
we have running. Two years ago we set up two old boxes (dual
Pentium Pro machines, HP Vectra XU6/200s), one with Solaris 2.6 and
one with NT4 (SP3). The Solaris box has been running for over 500
days now without rebooting; the NT4 never stayed up more than 35
days. The latter was upgraded to Win2K in February, but the longest
it's stayed up since is 45 days. Both run departmental web servers,
by the way, and are in constant use. As I implied in my earlier
message, there's nothing wrong with decent Intel hardware that a
real O.S. can't fix.
        For any server use, though, whether you use the PC hardware
or Sun, whether Solaris or NT/W2K, you'll probably be happier
spending a little extra to get SCSI I/O rather than IDE. Symbios
makes very good, fast, inexpensive Ultra2 SCSI cards that work well
with Solaris x86, NT, and Win2K, and cost about a third of what
Adaptec cards go for - and we find them faster.
        Good luck!

John Sullivan jgs@netgenics.com
IMNSHO, you will not be able to maintain a $1000 price point (ignoring
the cost of the OS) and get equivalent performance plus reliability. Its
a variation of the old saw to say,"Price, Performance, Stability. Pick
any two." The Sun system, even older ones, will cost more than the x86
at every level of performance. In exchange, you get hardware that is
frequently more reliable, a really good OS, and a system that generally
performs adequately even under the heaviest loads.

Your description of the services this box will run are too vague to
accurately assess the demands but, yes, an Ultra 1 will do very nicely
as a DNS server for a small domain while handling SMTP, a few POP3
accounts, and a lightly trafficked webserver. For light demands (say,
Home Office or Small Office) a nicely equipped SS20 (dual 50 or 60MHz
CPUs, 128+ MB RAM, HME NIC, external SCSI storage) will do just fine.

Now, want to handle lots of web traffic? Going to run Servlets,
includes, CGIs, php, or mod_perl on that webserver? Want to run multiple
mailing lists? Lots of POP accounts? IMAP4? Even using the most
efficient for each of these (for example: thttpd or boa for static web,
qmail for email, djbdns for DNS, etc) you will eventually reach a point
where delays are unacceptable and resources are exhausted.

For example, I've run Sybase 11.51 and Netscape Enterprise Server on a
SS20 w/2x50s, 256MB of RAM, and a SSA1000 and never heard a complaint
that response was slow. On the other hand, I've had developers and
DBAs scream at me that an E3500 was too light for the combined load of
Sybase, Apache, WebSphere, Autosys, and DB2 Connect.

So, this may seem heretical on a Sun list, but if you have a tightly
contrained budget and you must maintain "performance" levels your best
option might be two nicely configured x86-based servers with good
hand-selected components (PC Power & Cooling Power Supply, ASUS or TYAN
MB, Crucial SDRAMs, Qlogic or DPT SCSI, etc.) and run one of the BSD's.
It will take several SS20's to equal that pair.

- Ross Lonstein

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