When and Oracle and Sun add some flesh to their Raw Iron initiative today, they will re-open that oldest of chestnuts: do we really need the stuff Microsoft is throwing at us? More importantly, while much of that debate has in the past been resolutely at the mud-slinging level, Oracle and Sun will get the chance to prove whether there is a market opportunity for an appliance server alternative to Wintel that runs only Java.
At the Las Vegas Comdex show last month, Oracle talked up Real Iron - effectively a plan for a new(-ish) category of devices called appliance servers' that will run a micro-kernel and Orcale's Internet File System rather than a full-blown operating system. System vendors would be able to offer low-cost database servers built to a standard blueprint, Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison said. The desktop clients could be any thin-client. The move was widely seen as a swipe at all things Microsoft, notably Windows NT.
Today's announcement will likely see Sun become the partner that provides the micro-kernel based on Solaris. Of perhaps more interest will be whether any notable PC vendors are announced as partners. At Comdex, Ellison - never a shy man - boasted that Compaq, Dell and Hewlett-Packard were all talking to Oracle about possible licensing agreements that could see systems on the market by March 1999. The support of high-volume vendors will go a long way to adding weight to the Raw Iron initiative.
Already the battle lines are being drawn.
Raw Iron backers note that today's full-fat system software is way too bloated for browser-centric computing and that Microsoft has enslaved us all with expensive and labyrinthine licensing deals.
Critics point out that such a hard-wired computing model is reinventing the wheel, penalising users by bringing back arcane bugbears such as client inflexibility and card-based upgrades, and say a server-based model is asking for problems in a world of unreliable networks.
A story in the Wall Street Journal Europe this morning wryly concludes that "neither Mr Ellison nor Mr McNealy have unblemished records in predicting hardware trends". However, with Intel (which has been shifting further away from the Microsoft idea of the shape of things to come for some while) also preparing a move into appliance servers, momentum is gathering for an alternative to NT in one-trick-pony servers.