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Physical Vs. Virtual: Oracle, Others Redefine Appliances

While IT rushes to virtualize applications, high-end databases are increasingly moving against the tide, from software to hardware.

A Hard Sell

In our InformationWeek Analytics Oracle/Sun Merger Survey, fielded six months after the acquisition closed, 28% of 454 respondents said they wouldn't buy an integrated database/ data warehouse appliance, compared with just 8% who said they were sold on the concept. Of course, that left the majority in evaluation mode, and the key benefits that vendors tout for these products track what CIOs say they want now: high availability, lower total cost of ownership, and easier maintenance. The trick for vendors is to prove their lofty claims.

For IT teams making the physical vs. virtual call, specific areas to investigate include the benefit of specialized silicon and tight hardware/software integration, ease of setup, scalability, and exactly what functionality is off-loaded to hardware.

Paradoxically, integrated-system vendors claim to offer many of the same business benefits of virtualization--notably, a more agile IT department and more efficient use of hardware. Respondents to our InformationWeek Analytics State of Database Technology Survey cited both of these attributes as critical. However, there are differences between what IT wants in OLTP deployments vs. data warehouses, notably in the area of cost: TCO is tied with high availability as the most important factor in data warehousing, cited by 39% of respondents with one or more data warehouses; in operational databases, it sinks down to sixth place, at 24%, behind features such as agility and fast deployment of new databases. The most important factor for an operational database is ease of maintenance, cited by 37% of survey respondents.

Whereas virtualization reduces the need for hardware configuration by doing more in software, integrated systems ease setup by shipping devices preconfigured. And whereas virtualization uses assets more efficiently, integrated systems are designed to harmonize software and hardware for specific workloads. They also cut costs by reducing time spent on integration.

In addition, integrated systems promise to make more efficient use of a previously underutilized but highly valuable asset: the data itself.

Some companies simply salt away data for compliance purposes, but aggressive retailers, banks, and telcos in particular aim to wring value out of it. "Everyone wants every single piece of information they can get on each customer," says Teradata's White.

In this respect, the term "data warehousing" is a misnomer. The analytics applications that integrated systems are designed for transcend just sticking data in a storehouse. They demand that the data be actively worked--analyzed many times over by pattern-matching algorithms or queried by automated searches. This is the promise of Greenplum, Netezza, and Teradata, not just Exadata. It's also the promise of SAP's HANA technology, which speeds analysis by storing data in memory. SAP says it will deliver a full data warehouse product based on HANA by year's end.

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