Do IT teams really want the integrated software-hardware stack that Oracle promises?

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

February 18, 2010

6 Min Read

Oracle is making a big bet that CIOs want integrated software stacks optimized to run on an appliance, and that they'll pay a premium to get greater ease of use. If so, it's a way for Oracle to sell both its middleware and application software along with its recently acquired Sun Microsystems UltraSparc hardware.

But the appliances will face stiff competition from other alternatives for delivering enterprise applications. Instead of opting for UltraSparc hardware, some IT departments will build their own software appliances--a combination of an application with its operating system--using the hardware of their choice. Frequently, they will run as virtual machines on the increasingly competitive x86 server architecture from Intel and AMD.

Oracle's hardware appliances would seem to have few advantages over virtualized software appliances running on systems from Hewlett-Packard, Dell, or IBM. Virtualized appliances might lend themselves to a converged server and network fabric, such as Cisco's Unified Computing Systems, or other offerings from hardware vendors optimized for virtualization. This approach stacks up many virtual machines per hardware server, with I/O flowing off the physical server into the network fabric. This convergence allows devices in the fabric to divide the converged traffic into its respective storage and networking parts.

Oracle will also be competing with CRM, human resources, and other enterprise applications available as a service, from suppliers such as, SuccessFactors, Workday, and perhaps even SAP and Oracle itself. If IT really wants simplicity, software as a service offers advantages over the promised Oracle appliances: The vendor is responsible for both reliable service delivery and low front-end pricing.

Data Shows Skepticism

Just over half of the 381 business technology pros we surveyed shortly after the deal closed on Jan. 27 think their companies will see no benefit from Oracle's acquisition of Sun. Even among customers of both Oracle and Sun, 42% think there will be no benefit.

But Oracle doesn't want every customer. It's gunning mostly for the biggest and most sophisticated ones with its Oracle-Sun combinations, so a small percentage expressing interest in its appliances may be all it needs.

Oracle already sells database appliances based on UltraSparc servers, and 13% of Oracle customers in our survey prefer to buy a database system that way; 16% of existing Sun customers do, and 14% of customers who use both Oracle and Sun do. Only 7% of those who are neither Oracle nor Sun customers say they would buy such an appliance.

The numbers drop off for individual applications on combined UltraSparc hardware/Oracle software. For financial apps, which require a spike in computing capacity with each quarterly close of the books, 10% of Oracle customers, 9% of Sun customers, and 6% of Oracle-plus-Sun customers would prefer them on an appliance. Sixty percent of Oracle customers say they prefer to buy financial apps as standalone software to run on their choice of hardware.

In segments such as CRM where there's a viable SaaS option, Oracle has a tough row to hoe: Only 5% of Oracle customers want a CRM hardware appliance; 17% want CRM as an online service. (Oracle does offer one.)

Oracle's reputation as a high-price, high-performance vendor precedes it in any market. Michael Schultheiss, a Unix systems administrator at Indiana University, says his shop would consider one of the Oracle appliances, but "the price point would have a lot to do with whether we would purchase an entire stack from Oracle." But he adds what should be a warning to Oracle: "We've done a lot of migration from traditional Unix to Linux on x86. I can only imagine that would continue."

chart: How will Sun benefit from Oracle?

Likely Appliance Apps

Oracle has a lot of processing-intensive applications, from financial software to industry-specific apps such as Oracle Transportation Manager, that look like prime candidates for appliances. Transportation Manager calculates shipping options across many factors, such as whether to use truck, train, or ship; which suppliers to consider; and delivery times. These kinds of CPU-hogging apps might lend themselves to the hardware appliance format run on premises.

But companies such as Con-way--a freight manager that uses Oracle databases, Financials, Transportation Manager, and PeopleSoft--show how cloud-based options will compete with appliances. "Cloud computing is interesting to us," says Maja Tibbling, Con-Way's principal enterprise architect. "Rather than migrating to an appliance for our ERPs, we would probably go toward either hosted or on-demand in the future." Tibbling considers hardware appliances more attractive to smaller businesses.

That's not Oracle's vision. Co-president Charles Phillips, at the Jan. 27 session explaining Oracle's Sun strategy, presented the appliance as a high-value product for customers that can afford Oracle's premium technical support. Oracle will sell plain UltraSparc hardware if companies want it, but Oracle executives have said something Sun would not have. "We're not interested in the commodity Windows, x86 market," Phillips said. "There are other people doing that, like Dell, whatever. Let them do that."

Yet Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's ambition isn't for Sun to hold merely a high-end niche. Ellison vowed to boost Sun's share of the server market and augment it with appliances. "We think Sun's a growing business," he said. "We plan to take share in servers, storage, and tape."

How do those two visions square up? At the event, Mark Kamlet, provost and senior VP at Carnegie Mellon University, came on stage to strike just the right notes for how Oracle could broaden Sun's appeal. "The technology stack has gotten very, very complicated for us," he said. "It's an immense hassle trying to get everything to work. ... We want integrated solutions. We want appliances that we can plug in and they work."

Oracle must capitalize on the overlap of its Oracle and Sun customer bases. Oracle estimates about a third of its customers are also Sun customers.

Getting Sun profitable while investing in the design and production of new UltraSparc servers will be a challenge. UltraSparc's current T2 Plus UltraSparc chip relies on 65-nanometer circuits, and Oracle plans to move to 45 nanometer with the T3, due later this year. Oracle says it's committed to the next generation beyond T3.

Ultimately, Oracle is likely to push UltraSparc forward just as long as it aids its larger goal of selling more Oracle software. If hardware appliances catch on, they'll bolster profit margins and investment will keep flowing into UltraSparc. If not, UltraSparc will drag down Oracle margins. Oracle has a lot of work ahead to convince customers of its vision for a high-value, premium-priced integrated stack of software and hardware. It doesn't have to win every customer over. But it does have to win over the biggest.

chart: Biggest benefit of Oracle-Sun?

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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