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.
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Of course, complex analysis takes major horsepower. So why do Teradata and EMC Greenplum eschew Netezza's custom hardware or Oracle's storage-tier techniques in favor of pure MPP power? "It's proven and scalable," says EMC's Lonergan. He points to supercomputers that use commodity components and open source operating systems and says that Greenplum can match Netezza's performance in many applications without using specialized silicon. The EMC Greenplum system also scales to more racks.

Another benefit of a standard architecture is that the vendor community is more comfortable embracing it as a platform. Havas Digital sells analytics software that runs on top of the Greenplum system and enables data-driven marketing. Katrin Ribant, executive VP at Havas Digital, says it chose Greenplum in part because it uses a lot of open source software that's easy for Havas engineers to understand.

Teradata's pitch is similar to Greenplum's, using parallel processing across multiple standard x86 cores. Like EMC Greenplum, Teradata has never tried to compete in the OLTP market and doesn't intend to, instead designing its systems to work well with companies' existing gear. "We got our start extracting data from an IBM mainframe," says White. "People bought us because we could do it better than IBM could."

Ultimately, these decisions aren't just about physical vs. virtual or standard vs. proprietary. They're about crafting a diverse IT strategy that makes the best use of resources. This is the opportunity that Oracle sees in database consolidation, and not coincidentally, it's the driving force behind virtualization. We've lived through--and literally paid the price for--customizing every system to every application. It's not just the hardware that's expensive; unique systems require unique expertise and expensive white-glove maintenance contracts, and they still represent critical points of failure. A virtualized, homogenized infrastructure addresses these concerns by making hardware and operating systems easily replaced commodities, but IT is still left managing complex applications. The challenge, then, is to strike the right balance, using a homogenized virtualized infrastructure where possible and purpose-built systems where necessary to deliver the services the business needs to thrive.