Oracle, Sun try to checkmate Microsoft

Although many industry observers concur that the technology exchange agreement announced last week by Oracle and Sun Microsystems is designed to thwart Microsoft's encroachment on the enterprise, opinions vary on the value of the deal to end-users.The deal allows Oracle to license Sun's Solaris Unix operating system for use in its Raw Iron server appliance initiative, gives Sun full license to Oracle8 and will create a server appliance to reduce headaches associated with managing databases.

Although many industry observers concur that the technology exchange agreement announced last week by Oracle and Sun Microsystems is designed to thwart Microsoft's encroachment on the enterprise, opinions vary on the value of the deal to end-users.

The most immediate result of this exchange -- which allows Oracle to license Sun's Solaris Unix operating system for use in its Raw Iron server appliance initiative, and gives Sun full license to Oracle8 and 8i databases to add components of those products to Solaris -- will create a server appliance to reduce headaches associated with managing databases, the companies said.

The idea is appealing at first blush, one user said.

"If this [appliance] was meant to replace my database server, and if all that ran on [the appliance] was the database with no business logic, and if that box runs more efficiently, then definitely I would take a look," said James Holtman, vice president for systems architecture at Convergys, in Cincinnati. "However, I would have to see how they have refined the operational tools to let me tune my [database] application when it is running."

Oracle's Raw Iron server appliance initiative de-emphasises the operating system by whittling it down to basically what is needed to boot and run the server. Emphasis instead is placed on Oracle8i, a version of the company's namesake database that includes elements traditionally found in operating systems, such as a file system.

Paring down the system will make database servers easier to set up and cheaper to maintain than servers running a full-blown operating system, such as Microsoft's Windows NT, according to Oracle Chairman and CEO Larry Ellison. However, this idea has been approached from the other side in the past: The PICK operating system includes an integrated database, as do several IBM minicomputers.

What Sun gets out of the deal are features for Solaris, including enhanced file storage, e-mail, calendaring, directory, and system-management, said Sun Chairman Scott McNealy. Sun plans to aim this enhanced version of its operating systems at electronic commerce and other Internet applications.

One analyst said that although most of the story has yet to be told, people are starting to embrace this functional server approach.

"There is a very real thing going on here with two major players in the Unix space saying they can come out with an integrated software platform to compete with Microsoft," said Jean Bozman, an analyst at International Data, in Mountain View, California.

But another analyst disagreed with the notion that anything "real" is taking place.

"Most users don't hate Microsoft the way Ellison and McNealy do, and people are relatively happy with their server operating environments. They've conquered the OS difficulty already, and the last thing they want is the introduction of another platform," said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst and IT advisor at Illuminata, in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Despite the debate over the merits of the server appliance, most industry observers agreed the strategy behind it is to foil Microsoft.

Server appliances such as Raw Iron will attract significant attention in 1999, making Microsoft at least a little nervous, according to one analyst.

"Anything that threatens the status quo threatens Microsoft. The status quo has been good to Microsoft, and changes to it can provide some risk to the company," said Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies, based in Kirkland, Wash. "If Raw Iron takes off I would not be surprised to see Microsoft come out with an alternative appliance."

Sun's Solaris is expected to be the first of several operating systems Oracle will employ for its server appliances. Oracle's chief also implied that the company will announce a similar deal to use elements of Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX operating system. However, one unnamed HP executive was unaware of any such deal.

"If Oracle is talking to us about this, it has been to a very small audience," the HP executive said.

The first round of server appliances, which are slated for availability in March, will be built using Intel and Sparc processors -- because Solaris runs on both chip architectures. The appliances are expected to be manufactured by the likes of Dell, Compaq, and HP, Ellison said, although Oracle has yet to announce concrete deals with hardware vendors. Pricing is expected to start at $US10,000.

Oracle Corp., in Redwood Shores, California, is at www.oracle.com. Sun Microsystems Inc., in Mountain View, California, is at www.sun.com.

(Bob Trott and Ephraim Schwartz contributed to this article.)

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