Oracle tries to step up on high-end databases

Oracle's acquisition spree has made it a formidable top-to-bottom enterprise stack vendor, but it has weaknesses in the high-end database market it is trying to shore up

Since 2005, Oracle has spent at least $32 billion on acquisitions -- turning itself into the vendor of a top-to-bottom enterprise software stack that is arguably broader in scope than any rival suite.

In doing so, Oracle hasn't diluted its database focus. Sales of databases and middleware still account for more than half of its revenue. And according to consulting firm Gartner, Oracle controlled 49 percent of the global database market last year, with more revenue than the next four vendors -- IBM, Microsoft, Teradata and Sybase -- combined.

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But Oracle has shown some signs of vulnerability at the high end of the database market. For instance, many Web 2.0 companies are eschewing its databases and instead running open-source technologies like MySQL on grids of PC servers. And corporate users with data warehouses sized in the hundreds of terabytes, or even in the petabyte range, are finding column-oriented databases and specially tuned data warehousing appliances to be more scalable than Oracle databases are.

So Oracle's annual OpenWorld conference in San Francisco two weeks ago was heavy on database news as the company tried to show that it is agile enough -- and its software is robust enough -- to respond to the new challengers.

At the top of the list was Oracle's announcement of a pair of hardware products -- its first ever -- aimed at users looking to get ultrafast performance out of their ultralarge databases.

For the past six months, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison had teased users and analysts with hints that the vendor would introduce a "database accelerator" at OpenWorld. That turned out to be the Exadata Storage Server, which combines Oracle's parallel query software with ProLiant servers from development partner Hewlett-Packard.

What makes the Exadata system different from a typical storage server, according to Oracle, is the database intelligence built into the device. Ellison claimed that Exadata can speed up large queries by performing lower-level calculations on the information it stores and then sending the results to the main database, instead of flooding it with raw data.

The other new product, the industrial-sounding HP Oracle Database Machine, is a self-contained system designed to match up against integrated data warehousing appliances from vendors like Teradata and Netezza.

The Database Machine combines eight regular database servers running Oracle Database 11g with 14 Exadata systems that have a total storage capacity of 168TB and InfiniBand connections offering 14GB/sec. of aggregate data bandwidth.

That all costs a mere $2.33 million -- for existing customers that have enterprise or unlimited Oracle database licenses. New customers would have to pony up for licenses for the eight database servers; based on the configuration recommended in an Oracle white paper, that would cost an additional $3.22 million, analysts said.

Even so, Christo Kutrovsky, a database administrator at The Pythian Group, an Ottawa-based company that manages databases for corporate clients, said he thinks the Database Machine could be worth the steep cost if the alternative is having the IT department try to assemble a similar system itself.

"Ninety percent of the problems I've seen are due to improperly configured systems," Kutrovsky wrote in Pythian's corporate blog. Installing the Database Machine eliminates that issue by making configuration errors "impossible," he said.

According to Oracle, customers that tested production workloads on a half-size Database Machine said queries ran 10 to 72 times faster than they did on other systems. Those early users include the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, supermarket chain Giant Eagle and LGR Telecommunications, which develops data warehousing systems for telecommunications carriers.

In a blog post, Forrester Research Inc. analyst James Kobielus described the introduction of the Database Machine and Exadata as "a bold move into petabyte scale-out territory -- an emerging, very-high-end niche in which one veteran vendor, Teradata, has been preeminent."

Kobielus also noted that Oracle's storage layer is transparent to applications, meaning they don't need to be rewritten in order for users to see performance gains on the new systems.

Lukewarm reception
But Tim Hall, a U.K.-based Oracle DBA, blogged that he was "a little underwhelmed" by the OpenWorld announcement. "It all seems a little irrelevant to me," Hall wrote, citing the price tags and high-end focus of the new products. "For me, this is like discussing the merits of a Lamborghini when I'm actually going to buy a Renault Clio."

And independent database analyst Curt Monash said that although the Database Machine and Exadata are impressive from a technical standpoint, he doesn't expect them to win over many Web 2.0 companies or other new users. The technologies make the most sense for businesses that already use Oracle's data warehousing products and "are content to pay Oracle prices," Monash said.

For companies that don't have money to spend on a turbocharged system like the Database Machine, Oracle is touting 11g's Advanced Compression option. In a session at OpenWorld, Oracle officials said the data compression technology can dramatically shrink database table sizes and boost read/write speeds by as much as three to four times in data warehouses as well as transaction databases.

In fact, Oracle claims that companies using Advanced Compression no longer need to move seldom- or never-used older data to archives. Instead, they can keep all that information in their production databases, according to Oracle officials.

But users haven't flocked to Advanced Compression yet. One reason is that it's not a free add-on: Licenses start at $11,500 per processor -- a relatively high price in its own right.

In addition, the technology is available only to users of the year-old 11g Enterprise Edition, which has yet to be widely adopted. Andrew Mendelsohn , senior vice president of server technologies at Oracle, said that 75 percent of the company's database customers are running its 10g release, while another 20 percent are still using the even older 9i version.

For instance, LGR Telecommunications has built a pair of 300TB data warehouses for AT&T, which stores its caller data records in them. But the databases, which run concurrently, are based on 10g and can't take advantage of Advanced Compression yet.

Hannes van Rooven, a technology manager at LGR, said during a presentation at OpenWorld that his company uses compression only to a limited extent now, although it does plan to increase its usage "extensively" in the future.

Intermap Technologies Inc. is running the spatial version of 11g for an 11TB database of mapping and imagery data that is expected to grow to 40TB by the first quarter of 2010. But Sue Merrigan, senior director of information management at Intermap, said that the company doesn't compress the data "because we're concerned it would lose its accuracy."

That wouldn't happen, Oracle officials said. But comments such as Merrigan's show that even among some of its loyal customers, the vendor still has a sales job to do on Advanced Compression -- never mind the Database Machine and Exadata.

Chris Kanaracus of the IDG News Service contributed to this story.

This story, "Oracle tries to step up on high-end databases" was originally published by Computerworld.