Oracle: Linux’s biggest fan — and vendor

Database company's contribution to free software has been huge, says Neil McAllister

Quick — name a company that has invested heavily and continuously in open source, is one of the top contributors to Linux kernel development, and offers full enterprise support for Linux to thousands of customers.

Were you thinking of Oracle? Probably not, but that’s something Oracle would like to change.

“When I read magazines and there’s a list of companies that are involved with Linux and Oracle is not on that list, that’s when I get angry,” says Wim Coekaerts, Oracle’s director of Linux engineering.

To be fair, Coekaerts showed no signs of turning emerald green or smashing anything when I spoke to him recently. Rather, he was soft-spoken and articulate — in contrast, perhaps, to the popular perception of Oracle as being something of a bully in the open source world. He did come armed with some impressive statistics, however.

Oracle is involved with Linux, Coekaerts says, foremost because Oracle uses Linux. A lot of Linux. Right now, almost 10,000 Linux servers are in use internally at Oracle. Essentially, every production server at Oracle is a Linux server.

In addition, about 9,000 developers at Oracle are using Linux to develop products.

A lot of that can be attributed to one simple factor: cost savings.

“We use Linux for the same reason all the other companies are using Linux,” Coekaerts says.

But there’s more to it than that. The Oracle database is a large, complex application that places a lot of demands on the underlying OS. When Oracle wants to experiment, changing how the OS works to optimise database performance, it’s easier to do so with an open source, community-driven OS than a proprietary one. Hence the number of Linux kernel contributions from Oracle engineers. As a fast research and prototyping tool, Linux can’t be beaten.

The end result of all this in-house Linux experience is a whole lot of in-house expertise. In a way, then, it was only natural that Oracle should enter the Linux support business. It’s not widely recognised but Oracle has provided enterprise Linux support, through its Unbreakable Linux programme, for about four years. Now, with its new Oracle Validated Configurations initiative, it is poised to take that a step further.

An Oracle Validated Configuration is essentially what it sounds like. Oracle and its partners have selected specific combinations of hardware and software — including server hardware, chip sets, Linux OSes, drivers, and storage — and subjected them to approximately 60 to 70 tests, designed to tax each system to the limits of its performance.

The “validated” label means you’re getting a complete system that has been fully configured, certified and optimised to run Oracle, down to specific kernel module parameters.

The Oracle stamp of approval doesn’t just benefit Oracle users, however. Because Oracle is such a heavyweight application it tends to highlight problems more quickly than other kinds of software. A system that runs Oracle well is almost guaranteed to run other applications well, too.

By comparison, Coekaerts says it typically takes customers nine to 12 months to get full server stacks properly configured when they do it themselves.

“We’re saving lots of people’s time, including our own,” he says.

But the bigger picture is one of perception. Over the long term, Coekaerts would like to see Oracle recognised for the contributions it has made to Linux throughout the years. As the world’s second-largest software company, Oracle’s influence over the industry isn’t going away, but its reputation as an outsider in the world of open source just might.

“We’re doing Linux the way we should be doing it,” Coekaerts says. “We’re trying to use our influence to do something good.”

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