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The Good And Bad Of Hardware-Software Appliances

Interest in appliances is growing, driven by big vendors including Oracle and IBM.

Software-plus-hardware appliances have been around for a long time, but the market for them is changing fast.

On the upside, integrated hardware-software machines are making inroads into more complex realms of data analytics, as evidenced by Oracle's successful Exadata database appliance and IBM's $1.7 billion bid for data appliance maker Netezza. On the downside, appliances delivering plug-and-play, focused capabilities, from spam filtering to WAN optimization, are being replaced in some cases by software as a service.

Bank of America wanted "stability and performance" from Exadata, says Vinod Haval, VP and manager of database products at the company. The bank has used its two Exadata appliances in production only for human resources and training database operations--far from mission-critical functions like online transaction processing. However, it's testing business intelligence uses, and Haval's seeing ad hoc queries execute 12 times faster. That's taken him from skeptic to convert.

"We have one of everything, and it's made the data center too complex," he says. "We need one solution, one architecture. From that perspective, Exadata provides the right platform for consolidating database operations."

There's a widening appreciation among IT executives for what tightly integrated hardware, applications, and operating systems can do to alter how business is conducted, through faster data analysis.

Appliances have "completely transformed the way we do information management," says Eric Williams, CIO of Catalina Marketing, a supplier of near-real-time customized promotions to supermarkets, based on its 2.2 PB of consumer data. Catalina's data warehouse lets grocery stores print coupons tailored to the customer at the checkout counter. Its data warehouse is built on 12 Netezza appliances, which let Catalina do lookups and analysis and respond with a personalized promotion in three seconds.

Catalina also is a big Oracle database user but gravitated to Netezza, which had its appliance out well before Oracle's first Exadata appliance, in 2008. If IBM's acquisition of Netezza goes through, large-scale database appliances are likely to become more common as IBM drives broader marketing. Among other market players, data warehouse software supplier Greenplum was acquired by EMC in July, and startup Aster Data just received another $30 million in late-stage funding.

Oracle customers appear open-minded to optimized software-hardware stacks. Sixty-nine percent of the 451 business technology pros who responded to a July InformationWeek survey said they'll consider them like any other option. One in five survey respondents said they'd generally avoid or flatly won't buy this way.

For the likes of Chet Zdanowski, it comes down to whether the gear solves a business problem. He's payroll manager for capacitor manufacturer Kemet Electronics, an Oracle customer, and he says he isn't concerned about the underlying hardware. Kemet's IT department literally has to unplug and move servers around the data center to give Kemet the horsepower to close the books each month. If it could meet the spike by reassigning virtual machines in a highly virtualized appliance, the company would consider it.

Why Appliances, And Why Not

Big data appliances promise a more convenient way to package the database and its operating system, as well as related parts such as encryption and compression, on hardware optimized for that job. Erroneous configurations frequently lead to underperforming data warehouses. The database encryption function, for instance, can now be linked to certain hardware assists embedded in Intel's latest chips, Xeon 7500 and 7600.

Appliances aren't a new concept. Security vendors have been driving this model for years, for firewalls, antispam, Web security, and other functions. But that model may come under fire from software as a service.

Microsoft is among the many vendors offering both appliances and SaaS. It's working with Hewlett-Packard on appliances for SQL Server data warehouse, SQL Server online transaction processing, and e-mail. At the same time, Microsoft is pushing a cloud-based database service, SQL Azure, and SaaS e-mail.

Randy George, senior systems analyst for the Boston Red Sox, hopes to move away from appliances. He has lots in his data center, for jobs from Web security to WAN optimization. As the hardware hits end of life, however, he'll try to replace them with online services. "I'm looking to do as much in the cloud as I can," says George. "I'm looking to get rid of as many appliances as I can."

Appliances often cost thousands of dollars up front, and particularly for a mobile workforce--the Red Sox have scouts around the world--George finds it's easier to have Web-based tools. Dropping appliances doesn't necessarily mean switching vendors, though. Many now offer the tools as an online subscription.

George (who's also an InformationWeek Analytics contributor) doesn't do much of the heavy-duty, big data analytics that some of the newer appliances are aimed at. Appliances may make sense in some of those uses, he says.

Inside The Oracle Machine

That's where Oracle's aiming. The second version of its Exadata machine, Exadata X2-8, added an important feature: 5 TB of solid state disk. The flash memory, consisting of Sun Flash Fire cards, serves as a giant cache for frequently used data. Solid state disks haven't been used on database machines before. One reason is that while you can read the disks as many times as you want, you can write to SSD memory only about 5,000 times before the gate decays. SSD makers now have ways of leveling the wear across an array of SSDs, so they think they'll have about the same life as a spinning disk. But buyers don't have experience with SSDs lasting 10 years.

Buyers will also likely worry about how proprietary Oracle's appliances are. Exadata and Oracle's new Exalogic application-running appliances will run either Solaris or Linux, but for Linux, it will have to be a version that makes use of solid state disks at a faster rate than today's standard Linux issue. That's one reason Oracle just came out with a modified Linux core, its Unbreakable Kernel. Chief corporate architect Edward Screven was at pains to say, "We are not forking Linux." But Oracle's Unbreakable Kernel has changes that other kernels, such as that used by Red Hat and Novell, do not.

Exadata and Exalogic consist of largely standard hardware parts, such as Intel processors and off-the-shelf disk drives and InfiniBand switches. But once assembled, they're still highly proprietary products that will be hard for customers to move away from. Look inside an Exadata machine and you'll see a familiar Oracle Real Application Cluster (RAC). You can get the benefit of the attached storage server, but you'll need Oracle Automated Storage Manager to run it. And you'll need to compress your data before storing it, so add Oracle Advanced Compression and Oracle Enterprise Manager to control more than one appliance at a time.

"It's not an appliance for our clients in small and medium business," says Gustavo Gonzalez, global IT director of IT Convergence, which helps customers configure and run Oracle's E-Business Suite and other applications.

So whether it's intending to or not, Oracle has made the appliance choice both more attractive and more stark. Get the impressive benefits of an Oracle packaged machine, but get tied more closely to Oracle in your data center: database, applications, middleware. and now hardware, run by an Oracle operating system. Oracle's innovation seems slightly less grand than represented, but the use of flash memory and some prefiltering of queries at the appliance's storage server level is driving notable efficiencies, for which some CIOs are paying a big price tag.

Yet it's notable that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison went to some length this year to attack Consider it a leading indicator of what Ellison fears--a surging source of competition for his preferred way to run Oracle products.

Write to Charles Babcock at

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