Oracle CEO Larry Ellison wades into the in-memory database wars

Oracle's in-memory option takes advantage of the core platform's maturity, according to an executive

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is taking the fight to IBM, Microsoft, and SAP in the burgeoning in-memory database market with a new option the company says can deliver dramatic performance boosts without requiring changes to applications.

Ellison first unveiled Oracle Database In-Memory at September's OpenWorld conference. During a webcast Tuesday, Ellison is expected to announce the product will be generally available within 60 days.

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That's a bit sooner than some industry observers expected, and Oracle's aggressive timeline speaks to the competitive pressures it is facing from rival in-memory database vendors. SAP, for one, has ported its Business Suite software to Hana, an in-memory platform it launched a few years ago, with the express goal of convincing Suite customers now using Oracle's database to make the switch.

In-memory computing pushes information into RAM instead of reading it off of disk, providing significant performance boosts. Oracle has already offered the TimesTen in-memory database in both stand-alone form and as a caching option for its flagship database, but that technology has tended to serve more specialized purposes.

With the new in-memory option Oracle has an advantage over newer in-memory platforms such as Hana, said Tim Shetler, vice president of product management, in an interview prior to Tuesday's event. SAP is "trying really hard to finish the other parts of a database management system," he said. "It's just a matter of maturity."

In contrast, Oracle's in-memory option can take advantage of the company's well-established capabilities for database scalability, high-availability and security, Shetler said.

Since the OpenWorld announcement, Oracle has added additional features to the in-memory option, the key one being support for its RAC (Real Application Clusters) technology, which provides scalability and fault tolerance.

The in-memory option is only available with the enterprise edition of Oracle's database, as is typically the case, Shetler said. Pricing won't be released until the general availability launch but licensing will follow standard Oracle guidelines, he said.

Oracle took a best-of-both-worlds approach to its in-memory option. The add-on creates an in-memory column store, which dramatically speeds up analytic queries, while preserving the database's existing relational row store for OLTP (online transaction processing) workloads. The column store does away with the overhead required to maintain row-based analytic indexes, improving OLTP performance.

Ellison displayed a series of slides that gave real-life examples of how the new option dramatically sped up Oracle application performance.

"People, when we ran these tests, they said, 'I don't think it ran,' " Ellison joked. "I think it's broken. I'm serious, they just didn't believe it. When you're used to waiting hours for something and it's just instantaneous, you can't understand."

The in-memory option is "just going to change the way you operate," Ellison said. "It's going to make everything a lot simpler. You can use your transactional system as a data warehouse."

Despite the option's benefits for analytic processing, there's still good reason for customers to buy Exalytics, Oracle's dedicated analytics appliance, according to Shetler.

Exalytics should be seen as a dedicated platform for running Oracle's BI (business intelligence) stack and Endeca data-discovery tool, with data being pulled into the system from multiple locations, he said. The in-memory option, meanwhile, helps speed up multiple applications that share the same database server, he added.

One observer gave the new option a measured thumbs up.

"The two standard concerns about Oracle are cost -- product and administration alike -- and scaling difficulties," said analyst Curt Monash of Monash Research. "Both apply to this option in spades. But otherwise, it sounds great, for all the usual RAM performance reasons."

Ellison, who is well-known for the barbs he throws at competitors, did not have nearly as kind words for rival products during Tuesday's webcast.

"There are other in-memory databases but they don't scale out very well, or at all," Ellison claimed.

Oracle's approach also means customers don't have to place the entire database in memory, saving them money on RAM. "If you have a 200TB database, how much is that going to cost [to store in RAM]?" he said.

Instead, Oracle's technology is "smart," keeping the most oft-used parts of a database in memory while putting less frequently accessed information in other storage mediums, such as flash and disk, he said.

"You get the speed of memory but the capacity of disk, which means the system is economical as well as fast," Ellison added.

Nor will it be difficult for customers to implement the in-memory option, Ellison said. Administrators would simply configure how much RAM should be allotted for the columnar store, dictate which tables and partitions should be cached in memory, and then drop row-based analytic indexes. "You're done," Ellison said. "That's it. Nothing else. I really mean minutes. A few minutes, and you're done. So easy it's boring."

In a statement, an SAP spokesman was less than impressed with Ellison's presentation.

"Thanks for the imitation but it's a dual and complex approach, whereas Hana remains a single copy of data - simple, elegant, fast and delivering transformational impact for thousands of customers/startups today," said Amit Sinha, senior vice president of platform marketing. "Hana is natively parallel and runs on commodity Intel boxes and is not reliant on big proprietary SMP boxes to achieve performance."

But Oracle brings a number of differentiators to the increasingly crowded in-memory market with its focus on areas such as high availability and fault tolerance, said Holger Mueller, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research.

The in-memory option's "non-invasive" delivery will be welcomed by existing Oracle database customers, Mueller added. "Nonetheless, we always advise customers to look at the cost benefits of any enterprise software upgrade."

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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