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Oracle Betting On UltraSparc

The database giant is proposing to make a high-end business out of integrated application stacks built on UltraSparc hardware.

Oracle's entry into the hardware business is unlikely to change the overall alignment of server suppliers, but it will revitalize Sun Microsystem's UltraSparc through at least two more generations.

And it will put the still-young notion of software appliances in a new limelight, knowledgeable observers said after Oracle's Jan. 27 briefing on how it will integrate Sun.

Until now, hardware/software appliance combinations have tended to be used primarily in the business intelligence area and for security/firewalls. Oracle is proposing to make a high-end business out of integrated application stacks built on UltraSparc hardware. The move may or may not be an "industry-transforming event," as Oracle executives frequently claim it will be. But it certainly promises to be an Oracle-transforming event.

Oracle is now in the appliance business, optimizing software and hardware to get them to new peaks of performance and reliability. It's a strategy tuned to the strengths of Sun's hardware. While Sun may have fallen behind in matching Intel in shrinking circuit size or IBM and AMD in clock speed, Sun's servers have always been design to run multiple threads, good for processing many small workloads at the same time or executing a large application with many simultaneously running parts.

Oracle no doubt will be happy to sell plain UltraSparc hardware as well to the many Sun customers who are likely to continue to want it. But at the same time, Oracle executives said something that Sun would never have said: "We're not interested in the commodity, Windows, x86 market. There are other people doing that, like Dell, whatever. Let them do that," said Oracle President Charles Phillips in positioning UltraSparc as a value-added product.

Sun Microsystems grew up in the workstation market and competed ferociously for the low end of the Unix server market, dominating it and pushing IBM and HP toward larger systems and larger customers. It was subsequently hit harder by the growth of Linux, but it was nevertheless part of Sun's DNA to pursue a commodity market. In its most competitive days, it sounded as if it intended to displace Microsoft, not IBM. It had previously out-competed Digital Equipment in workstations and threatened to do the same to larger computer makers in servers.

But that was back in the 1980s and 1990s. The Jan. 27 briefing at Oracle headquarters was about the post-merger world of 2010. "We want to be known for a value-added product line, one that's known for scalability and performance. That's what our engineers are going to focus their time on," said Phillips.

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