Last Monday the company announced that Sun Microsystems Inc. is its first partner for the so-called Raw Iron project. Sun will provide Oracle with a microkernel of its Solaris operating system to run in conjunction with Oracle's 8i database.
The goal is to produce machines, due by March, that offer better reliability and performance as well as less complexity, according to Oracle Chairman and CEO Larry Ellison. "All the complexity of the operating system has been hidden," Ellison said during a teleconference with Sun CEO Scott McNealy last week. "Installing the appliance will be as simple as plugging it into the wall and the network." But some critics have serious questions about the concept.
As for being spared complexity, Steve Lewis, senior technical analyst at Nortel Networks, a telecommunications equipment manufacturer, said the operating system is largely transparent today. As a result, it provides an additional level of security for the database. In addition, "I can't see a lot of positives in having a dedicated server that's going to have my database totally isolated," said Lewis. "I would really have to look at what the benefits would be and the additional cost of another server."
Others seemed perplexed by the Raw Iron push, particularly when about half of Oracle's customers, according to Ellison, already run the database by itself. "Don't be fooled by the hype," said Lorin Olsen, senior manager of enterprise network services at Sprint Corp., in Kansas City. "This is not a box without an OS. It's just a box with someone else's OS. More precisely, this appears to be another attempt by Ellison to freeze OS vendors from the market."
Indeed, others saw the move more as an effort to undercut rival Microsoft Corp.'s fast-growing Windows NT operating system and SQL Server 7.0 database sales, rather than a value-add proposition for IT managers.
It's not clear what server hardware vendors, other than Sun, will do with Raw Iron. Officials at Dell Computer Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. said they are all in discussions with Oracle about Raw Iron but said it's too early to detail plans. HP, for one, said it was unlikely to license Raw Iron per se but wasn't ruling out the idea of server appliances.
What is clear is that network appliances are nothing new. Cobalt Microserver Inc.'s Cobalt Qube package, for example, provides a bevy of workgroup services. Networking vendors such as 3Com Corp. and Multitech Systems Inc. sell cable modem and ISDN routers equipped with firewalls in a single box for a few hundred dollars. Also, Network Appliance Inc. has been selling single-function file servers for years.