IBM invented them, Larry Ellison supersized them, SAP has revolutionized them, HP is promising them, and just about every single major IT vendor is rushing into the market for appliance-like systems that have shown great potential in redefining the types of business value that truly innovative IT can offer.
The new wave of highly optimized and deeply integrated hardware-software combinations known as optimized systems rushed to the forefront of IT innovation in 2010, promising the seductive combination of dramatically improved performance and sharply reduced customer-side integration, tuning, and tinkering.
These new hardware-software combos are being aimed at everything from OLTP to data warehousing to analytics to Exchange servers to middleware, BI, security and beyond, pushing well past the valuable but narrow niches—primarily data warehousing—that until recently were about the only areas in which appliances and purpose-built systems operated.
Because these optimized systems can offer such significant improvements in speed, performance, throughput, power, and range of capabilities, and because they can also significantly reduce the amount of time and effort IT organizations have to devote to tinkering, tuning, tweaking, wiring, and integrating, the rise of these new purpose-built systems is my choice as the #1 development in our list of the Top 10 Tech Stories Of The Year.
(For extensive analysis and insight on this dynamic new category, please be sure to check out our "Recommeded Reading" list at the end of this column.)
As we wrote in September in a column called Global CIO: Global CIO: Larry Ellison And IBM Lead Surge In Optimized Systems:
"Are these highly engineered and integrated hardware/software combos truly going to be game-changers for CIOs—delivering far greater performance, requiring dramatically shorter installation times, and demanding zero tuning and configuring and retuning—or is do we just happen to be seated in the front car of the hype-cycle roller coaster?
"I'm betting on the former because the whole premise of these new machines goes far, far beyond the no-value concept of simply taking two 5-pound bags of concrete and combining them into one 10-pound bag of concrete and calling that innovation. Instead, I think, these new-wave systems are surging into the market because they can help companies of all sorts make the leap into the very different and demanding world of real-time business.
"These new optimized machines are in full ascendancy at this time because they're the most powerful and highest-value delivery platforms for some dazzling new software applications and technologies designed to analyze not just bigger mountains of data, but in less time and with greater insights and with almost-unlimited variations.
"Today's next-generation enterprise software that's bringing alive the promise of business analytics, predictive analytics, real-time analytics, real-time OLTP, staggeringly large databases, and the soaring volumes of queries triggered by many millions of mobile business users has become so powerful and so complex that generic servers—even the biggest and gnarliest boxes—simply can't exploit the full range of insights, foresights and opportunities that today's top software can deliver." (End of excerpt.)
IBM invented the category decades ago, which was a key point extolled by arch-rival Larry Ellison early this year as he described how Oracle would extract full value out of Sun's technology by rigorously engineering Oracle software in parallel with Sun hardware and software to achieve unprecedented levels of speed and throughput and power.
Here's how Ellison connected IBM's pioneering work in integrated machines with his intention to overhaul Oracle as a systems company in a column called Global CIO: Global CIO: Oracle's Larry Ellison Declares War On IBM And SAP:
"Exadata is the best example of this clustered architecture where we have collections of machines, storage, and networks all built together with the software tuned for the hardware. What we've been able to do with Exadata—and there will be other machines like or clusters like Exadata coming out for middleware applications, pretty much for all the software that we sell," Ellison said.
"Exadata Version 2 handles not only data warehouses but also handles transaction processing--we added a lot of flash memory into it—and we're gonna have new Exadata models—I don't want to preannounce anything, but we're gonna get better and better at very large-scale transaction processing. Our intent is that the Exadata line will challenge the biggest IBM P Series machines and beat them badly in performance, reliability, and cost. And we think we can do that: in transaction processing, we're twice as fast, and in data warehousing, we're 10 times as fast. Those are our goals: to be twice as fast as IBM's biggest, best box and again, at a dramatically lower price."
IBM dismissed Ellison's comments as so much hot air: "There is a fundamental philosophical difference between Oracle and IBM," the IBM spokesman said. "Oracle is trying to convince the market that one system can efficiently handle both transactional and analytical workloads. IBM believes that systems should be optimized for particular workloads. For transactional use cases, Oracle sells Exadata. For analytical use cases, Oracle sells Exadata.
"On the other hand, IBM recommends systems that are optimized for particular workloads. For transactional use cases, IBM recommends DB2 pureScale, which is a tightly integrated, pre-configured, and pre-optimized hardware, software, and storage stack," IBM said. "For analytical use cases, IBM recommends the IBM Smart Analytics System, which is a tightly integrated, pre-configured, and pre-optimized hardware, software, and storage stack that includes ETL, data warehouse, Cognos reporting, SPSS analytics, and much more."
SAP late last month rolled out a revolutionary new appliance (in concert with hardware partners including Intel, IBM, and HP) called Hana that specializes in enormous analytics queries and uses SAP's new in-memory technology as a core factor in the dazzling speeds it has achieved.
SAP CTO and innovation leader Vishal Sikka said yesterday that a very large SAP customer in the consumer-packaged goods business ran queries against its 460 billion records (yes, that's billion with a B) and "the most-complex analysis they gave us took us 60 seconds to run through. Sixty seconds!" Sikka said.
"Technology is no longer the limit—only your imagination is the limit," Sikka said in the wake of the results achieved by that CPG company and the 50+ other customers SAP has been working with on early projects with Hana.
The system offers "a fundamentally different way to provide value to businesses, and we and our customers are only beginning to scratch the surface of what we can do. And the price-performance on this is unbelievable: it is several hundred times better than the other approaches our customer was looking at," he said.
The hardware used to crunch those 460 billion records was priced at $532,000, but Sikka said SAP has not yet set pricing for Hana, in part because the new system is delivering types of outcomes with no precedent—so on what basis should the pricing be set?
Those are the types of questions that'll arise as the tech industry looks to cast aside aggressively the approaches and philosophies that have been in place for 10 or 20 years, but are simply no longer sufficient to analyze the staggering volumes of data that will yield insights into future behavior—and to perform that analysis in real time.
Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard promised a couple of months ago that it was on the verge of a massive rollout of a family of purpose-built systems that would take full advantage of its vast portfolio of hardware, networking, and software products, along with applications from its software partners. You can read all about it at Global CIO: Global CIO: Gunning For IBM & Oracle, HP Plans Optimized-Systems Blitz, and here's a key excerpt:
"Throughout our conversation, the affable Paul Miller, VP of Solutions & Strategic Alliances for Servers, Storage, and Networking, insisted that HP's 'not really behind anybody' and that it's 'in the game' and will soon be 'even more in the game.' (I take his point, but I beg to differ—the facts simply tell a different story.)
"Miller said HP's been quietly testing some of its nascent purpose-built systems with key customers and is 'already building a pipeline and footprint in the market—we're not waiting to let competitors get a lap on us. We are out there competing with IBM as well as Exadata.'
"But for HP, the best by far is yet to come, Miller promises, as HP will soon move beyond these limited stealth engagements and introduce a huge family of optimized systems spanning 'the mid-market to mission-critical applications for the world's largest enterprises.' " (End of excerpt.)
Miller said HP would offer optimized systems for data warehousing, OLTP, BI, Microsoft Exchange, and business analytics. As of this week, no word yet from HP on when this planned optimized-systems blitz will become a reality.
We'll be keeping a close eye on further developments in optimized systems in 2011, and in particular whether they live up to their lofty promise that has made them #1 on our list of the Top 10 Tech Stories for 2010. Please check out the "Recommended Reading" list below for further insight and analyses on this dynamic new category.
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