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In-Memory Databases: Do You Need The Speed?

IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP are ramping up the fight to become your in-memory technology provider.

hinted that Oracle will release the in-memory product early next year, and he's already assuring customers that it will not be disruptive. "Everything that works today works with the in-memory option turned on, and there's no data migration," Ellison said at Oracle OpenWorld 2013 in September.

That "migration" comment is aimed at SAP, which insists that switching from Oracle to Hana isn't difficult. But technical guidance on SAP's site suggests that an SAP Business Warehouse migration isn't as simple (no surprise) as upgrading from Oracle 11g to Oracle 12c.

Last year, SAP offered the option of letting companies run their entire SAP Business Suite (including ERP, CRM, and other transactional applications) on the Hana platform. SAP says more than 800 customers have committed to making that move, and at least 50 have done so. Avon Cycles moved Business Suite from Oracle to Hana last fall. Shubhindra Jha, Avon's IT manager, says the complete process, including planning, hardware installation, testing, and production rollout, took 90 days, with only a couple of hours of downtime. However, Avon is a relatively small company, with 1,800 employees and 75 ERP users.

SAP vs. the incumbents
Make no mistake: The promises from Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft are quite different from the ambitious aspirations of SAP. Avoiding disruption is crucial for the three incumbents, because they want to keep and extend their business with database customers.

SAP isn't trying to protect legacy databases and data management infrastructure, so it's encouraging companies to get rid of databases and other "redundant" infrastructure through what it calls "radical simplification." SAP's pitch is that, by running both transactional and analytical applications in Hana, entirely in-memory, companies can dump separate data warehousing, middleware, and application server infrastructure, as well as data aggregates and other copies of data invented to get around disk I/O bottlenecks.

IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle aren't proposing that you get rid of any databases or data warehouses -- only that you upgrade to their latest products to add their new in-memory options. What's more, they have separate products for transactional and analytical workloads that can create yet more copies of data and require yet more licenses.

IBM's BLU Acceleration is for analytics, but IBM also offers all-flash storage arrays to eliminate disk I/O bottlenecks and speed transactional applications and database performance. Flash isn't as fast as RAM, but it's much faster than disk. IBM says these arrays cost far less than adding in-memory database technology and still can reduce transaction times by as much as 90%.

Microsoft provides PowerPivot and Power View plugins for Excel as its answer for in-memory analytics, but this client-side approach can create disconnected islands of analysis with disparate data models and versions of information from user to user.

Oracle's answer for in-memory analytical performance is Exalytics, but this caching appliance overlaps with its Exadata machine, creates more copies of data, and requires a TimesTen or Essbase in-memory database license. The Oracle Database 12c In-Memory Option isn't expected to be available in general release until next year at the earliest.

SAP's Hana Platform looks cleaner and simpler on paper, but we haven't yet seen much evidence of "radical simplification." SAP is the only company we know of running almost all its applications on the platform. All the companies we've interviewed or read about are picking and choosing what they run on Hana.

Avon Cycles, for example, runs its Business Suite on Hana, but it says it won't migrate Business Warehouse until it's sure it can replicate all its business intelligence queries and reports -- with adequate historical data. Queries and reports, after all, tend to run against aggregates, materialized views, cubes, and other artifacts of the disk age, so you can't get to "radical simplification" without refactoring reports and queries to run entirely in-memory.

Maple Leaf Foods is migrating an analytical Business Planning and Consolidation application from Oracle on to Hana, but it has no plans to migrate its entire SAP data warehouse running on Oracle on to the Hana platform. It's still running Hana in a "side car" deployment alongside the warehouse. "We only accelerate the data that creates value, so we're picky about what we move and the amount of data we move over to the sidecar, whether that's one year's, two years', or three years' worth of data," says Michael Correa, vice president of information solutions at Maple Leaf. "We've looked at the possibilities for CRM on Hana, and we're intrigued by the idea of putting the entire Business Suite on Hana, but it's not a priority for us either in terms of acceleration or simplicity for the next couple of years."

Most companies will follow this line of thinking as they ask the hard questions: What's the cost and risk of faster processing, and do the differences drive lower costs or higher revenue? IT will answer those questions on a case-by-case, function-by-function basis. Keep in mind that these in-memory options generally demand upgrades to the latest versions of the vendor's software, whether that's SAP BW or Business Suite, IBM DB2, Microsoft SQL Server, or Oracle Database. That cost alone will push back implementation for many companies. So expect the in-memory war to heat up in 2014, but the battle to play out over years to come.

Download the entire March 3 issue of InformationWeek,
In-Memory Databases.

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