UK Oracle User Group focuses on Grid Computing

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The key message coming out of the UK Oracle User Group (UKOUG) meeting this week was all around Grid Computing.

But not the on-demand computing type of Grid that is currently being so widely talked about and which will see the creation over the long term of a vast network hooking up computers around the world to share resources.

This dream, although at least five to 10 years from realisation, is based on the idea that customers will be able to tap into unused global computing power to run their applications as if it were a utility such as electricity. They won’t need to know where these resources are, and it won’t matter whether they are inside or outside the enterprise.

No, it’s not that Grid. Oracle’s Grid, rather more prosaically, will appear in the form of the Oracle 10g database at the end of the year. This includes scalability enhancements to the company’s existing 9i Real Application Clusters (RAC) technology, which enables the virtualisation of IT assets and pooling of resources to improve provisioning.

The focus is on boosting resource utilisation, which means that even during workload peaks, applications can access as much processing power as they need to do the job.

But this does not mean that Oracle is averse to taking some of the Grid ideas and slipping them into its own marketing messages, at the very least, like so many of its fellow vendors including IBM, as means of signalling future direction – even if it does run the risk of confusing customers.

As Ian Smith, senior vice president and managing director of Oracle UK, Ireland and South Africa, said in his keynote speech at the conference: “At Oracle, we’re working on the next disruptive technology – Enterprise Grid Computing. It’s about having resources when and where they’re needed, with software that is easy to run and control and can consolidate unwanted storage so it becomes a utility.”

Rather than customers having to go for a just-in-case computing model, which means buying enough hardware to cope with workload peaks, no matter how incidental, Grid, he claims, will enable them to move to a just-in-time scenario, which does not require sophisticated planning or have processors lying idle most of the time.

The return on investment (ROI) that can be gained from this, Smith claims, will appeal to companies of almost all types and sizes, but particularly to small to medium enterprises (SMEs), “which realise IT systems are essential to grow their business, but don’t want to have to worry about capacity issues because they want to focus on running the business”.

And this ability to appeal to new markets is crucial for Oracle, as Alan Hartwell, vice president of marketing at Oracle UK, points out. “A company the size of Oracle has to get into new markets to continue to grow, so we’re focusing on SMEs and partners, and bundling new products and features into the database. It’s commodity at the low end, but adding value added features moves us out of the commodity space and into a stronger position.”

Such features, he says, include the automatic reallocation of table space, single sign-on, and a 20-minute installation time from one rather than multiple CDs, which is aimed particularly at smaller customers buying through the third party channel.

Not only does Hartwell attest that the ROI message of Grid is enough to make new customers jump over to the Oracle platform, but he also believes there are sufficient enhancements in the new version to encourage the company’s installed base to migrate too.

A majority of UK users are still on the terminal release of Oracle 8i, and although Hartwell says Oracle has ensured it is easy for such customers to move straight to 10g, the UKOUG’s Miles expects many to migrate to the terminal release of 9i instead. Terminal releases are made available just before a new version of an Oracle product is shipped and include all previous bug fixes consolidated into one platform.

Ronan Miles, chairman of the UKOUG, explains: “There is a cultural issue between US and UK users, although in other ways we’re very similar. In the US, they see the advantage of something, go for it and are prepared to take the cost, but we’re much more conservative in that way in the UK and it’s not our philosophy.”

Taking a closer look at 10g for a moment, however, it becomes apparent that one of the downsides of the clustering software is its inability to work in heterogeneous environments. It is only capable of hooking up machines based on the same operating platform, which means that its usefulness in many organisations may be limited unless they invest in new systems to run their applications.

As Miles says: “One of the areas I would ask Oracle to look at relates to 10g working in heterogeneous operating system and hardware environments, which is an issue for a number of clients that have taken a traditional open systems philosophy. There is a vast array of hardware and OSs out there, and at the moment investment in rationalising systems isn’t something that everyone can do.”

According to Hartwell, however, it is currently not technically possible to provision applications running on different operating systems (OSs) because the OSs were not been designed to be interoperable.

But another question mark hanging over 10g involves the nature of the software licensing model Oracle plans to introduce to go with its new software. Industry watchers such as IDC and Gartner argue that, for Oracle’s version of grid computing to succeed, the company must allow users to pay only for the computing power that they use.

Such a sentiment appeared to be endorsed by Larry Ellison at the OracleWorld event in San Francisco in September, when he suggested that a flat rate fee should replace per processor licensing for all of its customers rather than just the handful of large corporates that have negotiated this individually for themselves.

But Hartwell said that he was unaware of any decision having been taken on this crucial issue to date.
He concludes: “You can beta test 10g now. It’s an evolutionary change from 9i, not a groundbreaking one and you don’t have to do everything all at once. It has significant features that we think will attract people to jump quicker, which has obvious benefits for us as well as customers.”

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