Oracle's grid technology should reopen your one-stop shop question

Oracle agrees that utility computing offers the best promise for keeping a lid on spending, and it's pitching a grid-based software approach. But here's what really distinguishes Oracle's latest pitch: To take full advantage of the new grid technology, yo
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

It's time for yet another OracleWorld, where the ever-charismatic CEO Larry Ellison is expected to deliver another keynote that's full of hyperbole and verbal assaults on his main competitors. IBM, Microsoft, and probably BEA will not escape unscathed. But the two major issues of substance for which attendees will be listening are the PeopleSoft acquisition and details of the company's forthcoming 10g line of software. Gone is the "i" (as in Oracle 9i) and in is the "g," which stands for grid.

As a marketer, Ellison is very effective on stage. Two years ago, Ellison seized the stage at the Oracle love fest and eviscerated IBM's and Microsoft's clustering technologies (not including IBM's mainframe gear) as share-nothing approaches that get slower and less reliable as more systems are added. He called them marketing clusters that had no intrinsic value to either company's customers, admitting in the next breath that, for the better part of a decade, the only clusters that Oracle had were marketing clusters, too. Repenting, Ellison came out swinging at the 2001 Oracle OpenWorld, announcing a share-everything approach to databases that ended an era of marketing clusters for Oracle. The new approach, according to Ellison, ushered in a solution that not only got more reliable ("unbreakable" in Oracle parlance) and faster with each system added, but that yielded a significantly better total cost of ownership than competing high performance solutions where a specific number of transactions had to be completed in a certain amount of time.

Ellison's very public derision of the competition went pretty much unanswered, thereby making Ellison's pitch all the more convincing.

So, what tricks will Ellison have up his sleeve this year?

If Ellison reuses the formula that made his past keynotes effective, his presentation will likely be replete with benchmark results, TCO calculations, and an eye-popping preview of the grid technology waiting in the wings: grid-enabled versions of the company's database and application server, dubbed, respectively, Oracle 10g and Oracle Application Server 10g.

In the Oracle scheme of things, grids are very much like clusters. As more systems are added to a grid of database or application servers, a boost in both performance and reliability is to be expected. But the main benefit that Ellison will likely pitch has to do with the way grids obviate the need to keep as much compute capacity on-hand as that which might be required if all your mission systems were simultaneously running at peak load. Generally, many configurations are overbuilt in a way that guarantees the applications they host will never run out of gas. So, a Web-based retail system might have a fixed capacity that's built to sustain the peak load of a Christmas rush. But for the rest of the year, that capacity remains idle.

To keep customers from overspending on such excess capacity, many solution providers are leaning in the direction of a utility model where the total capacity provided at any given point slides with the demand. Hewlett-Packard for example, delivers a utility framework under the auspices of its financing program. In that case, the capacity sits on your premises but you only pay for what you use. EMC recently introduced a similar hardware-oriented utility model.

Oracle however, is not a hardware company. It agrees that the utility model offers the best promise for keeping a lid on spending by better matching total utilization at any one point in time with aggregate capacity, but sees a software approach --- one based on grids --- as the answer. According to Oracle application server and tool marketing vice president John Magee, "Look around at your web sites, your ERP applications, your SAP installations, and even your Oracle stuff. Everywhere you look, you see these dedicated apps with dedicated hardware, and we see a problem with that model. You have your average day-to-day utilization, and then you have spikes. Those spikes could be 10 times the normal utilization. So, to accommodate that, companies buy enough hardware to handle peak loads, and then it sits underutilized when not under those peak loads. The way our 10g stuff works, you buy fewer hardware resources, and those resources are dynamically reallocated to make sure that each application is getting the capacity it needs."

What sets Oracle's grid technology apart from others, says Magee, is that it's shrink-wrapped. It comes included with the next versions of Oracle's database and application server, so it's there whether you use it or not. Turn it on, and it starts working in turnkey fashion. It's a grid-in-a-box. Even more interesting is how all of the contributors to a grid don't have to be working on the same operating system. So, a grid of databases can be built on a combination of Unix, Linux, and Windows servers.

Why is this significant? If you're on one platform, like Unix, but have been eyeing another, like Linux, a grid that accepts contributions from any operating systems provides you with the ultimate migration scheme to phase out one while phasing in another.

But, what really set this year's news apart from that of previous OracleWorlds isn't the introduction of some grid technology. What makes this year special for Oracle's customers --- especially the ones interested in deploying grids --- is that to take full advantage of the technology being introduced this year at both the data and the application integration/webified application layers (the latter served by a J2EE-compliant application server), your database and your application server will both need to come from Oracle.

While Oracle may be the undisputed leader in databases, most of those installations are in heterogeneous environments where co-resident technologies like application servers come from other companies. For example, BEA's J2EE-based WebLogic application server is often paired with Oracle's database. This is still possible with Oracle's 10g database, but, as Magee told me, you might be selling yourself short. "In that case, you only get the benefits of the grid at the data layer," said Magee. "That's a good start, but we're pretty sure that once customers start to realize the benefits of a grid at the data layer, they'll want it at the application server layer as well." To make that one-stop shop decision even easier to make, the same grid management tools from Oracle will manage both the grid-enabled versions of its database and application server. In addition, Oracle's development suite will be fine-tuned to build applications that are optimized to run on its grid-based database and application server.

Said Magee, "There used to be a lot of rocket science in provisioning, configuring, and monitoring grids. If you're shifting weight, you need to know more. Changes have to be scheduled to accommodate different applications with different peak demands. With this release, we're introducing a lot of new management and monitoring capabilities. Low-cost commodity components are the keys; the ability to standardize on off-the-shelf components regardless of whether they come from Sun, Dell, or HP. You unbox the database, set up your resources to contribute to the grid, and then our software is smart enough to reallocate those resources and shift workloads as necessary, all the while providing information to the user on what's going on. This will work across both the database and the application server."

For shops that are set on heterogeneity between their databases and application servers, Magee says, Oracle is engaged with other members of the Global Grid Forum in efforts that may produce some standards; but he admits it's too early to tell if anything substantive will emerge from those discussions.

In the meantime, while you might be able to benefit from what Ellison will claim to be a money-saving grid "suite" from a one-stop shop, Oracle's share of the application server market, which has very slowly been inching up on IBM and BEA, could get a boost if its customers buy his homogeneous vision.

Oracle has not yet announced pricing or date of availability for its 10g lineup.

Will Oracle's grid be a bunch of smoke and mirrors, or is there some real beef there. Share your comments with your fellow readers using ZDNet's TalkBack. Or write to me at david.berlind@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check the archives.

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