Craig S. Mullins 

Return to Home Page

February 1999

Computing News&Review
Raw Iron: The Database Appliance
By Craig S. Mullins
This past December Oracle Corporation and Sun Microsystems, Inc. announced an agreement to combine components of Oracle8i into the Sun Solaris operating system. This agreement basically outlines the creation of a "database appliance." But what does it really mean for the industry?
First, let's back up a bit. Oracle announced Oracle8i in September 1998 and touted it as "The World's First Internet Database." Those are Oracle's words, not necessarily mine. Oracle attempts to substantiate these claims through four new capabilities added to Oracle8i:
  1. Using an HTTP engine Oracle8i can process HTTP requests and serve Web pages.
  2. Using the Internet File System, abbreviated iFS, users can store files, such as Web pages, presentations, documents, spreadsheets, and images in Oracle8i. Any Windows file in any format can be dragged and dropped into the iFS. The database appears as a directory and can be accessed just like any other Windows directory. When the file is stored in the iFS it is integrated into the database and it automatically gets the benefits of being stored in the database: for example, security, backup and recovery, transaction services. Database files can also be accessed using a standard web URL.
  3. Oracle interMedia provides integrated management of multimedia content. Oracle interMedia enables Oracle8i to manage multimedia content for both Internet and traditional applications that need access to image, audio, video, location, text and relational data.
  4. Finally, Oracle8i adds a Java Virtual Machine (JVM). With JVM support, developers can write stored procedures in Java (in addition to Oracle's procedural SQL language, PL/SQL). Additionally, Oracle8i supports SQLJ, an embedded SQL language for Java, and Oracle8i is a fully functional Enterprise JavaBeans-compliant Java application server. So, users can deploy and execute corporate applications, written in either Java or PL/SQL, directly in an Oracle8i database.
So, Oracle8i is an intriguing DBMS offering in and of itself. Oracle's strategy appears to be to make the database server look just like a "back-end Internet OS". This is a good strategy for Oracle to be pursuing with Oracle8i. It is in Oracle's best interest for server-centric computing to proliferate. Its core product, the Oracle DBMS, runs on predominantly on servers. And Internet computing will continue to grow. So, it makes sense for Oracle to position itself as the Internet server computing company.
But What About the Database Appliance?
The non-exclusive agreement between Oracle and Sun allows both companies to distribute and support combined offerings of the Oracle8i database and the Sun Solaris operating system. Oracle will use Sun Solaris with Oracle8i to build a database server appliance, code-named Raw Iron. Touted as a low-cost, preconfigured database server, Raw Iron may succeed where the Network Computer failed. By tightly integrating the operating system and the DBMS, Raw Iron can hide complexity, lower costs, and perhaps operate more efficiently.
Oracle's DBMS runs on multiple different operating systems, including Sun's Solaris, Windows NT, and many others. In fact, Oracle's DBMS currently runs on more heterogeneous operating systems than any other commercially available DBMS. Raw Iron will not have an operating system in the purest sense. Instead it will require a microkernel, a small program that will enable the Oracle8i database to talk to the hardware. This microkernel will be based on Sun's Solaris.
This offering is reminiscent of the database machine concept that was popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The idea was to implement a machine whose sole purpose was to manage data. The DBMS and operating system of a database machine is preconfigured and optimized for database operations. Raw Iron fits this description. It has a good chance to succeed because most organizations do not implement other systems on their database servers anyway, hence the name "database server."
The database appliance is much more closely aligned to Oracle's core business than the network computer (appliance) was. It is good to see Oracle's key initiatives more closely aligning with its key business. The database appliance fulfills Larry Ellison's dream, a network server-based, Microsoft-less option for database computing.
And What of the DOJ?
By eliminating the need for Microsoft's Windows NT operating systems, Sun and Oracle may be doing Bill Gates a short-term favor. The Microsoft anti-trust proceedings being conducted by the Department of Justice seem more and more ridiculous. Any market that can conjure up an America Online acquisition of Netscape (boosting Netscape's browser viability) and a Sun/Oracle alliance (to provide an alternative to Microsoft's NT) seems to be a fairly competitive market to me.
HP Out in the Cold
It is interesting that Oracle has aligned themselves with Sun for this venture. The three major UNIX-based server companies are IBM, Sun, and Hewlett-Packard. IBM can offer DB2 on an RS/6000 for a completely homogenous database server. But HP has nothing similar. Of course, the deal with Sun is non-exclusive, so Oracle could partner with HP, too.
Over time, though, Oracle will need to add more hardware partners for Raw Iron. Users will most likely demand hardware options from Compaq, Dell and IBM, in addition to HP. But as long as a Microsoft operating system is required, Oracle will most likely balk.
Final Analysis
Raw Iron is still just a glimmer in Larry Ellison's eye. It is a brilliant glimmer, but Raw Iron is not yet generally available. In fact, Oracle8i was not yet available as of this writing (early January). Originally slated for Fall 1998 delivery, and then for year-end 1998, Oracle rescheduled shipment of Oracle8i again, this time for late January 1999. This is not really a problem because almost all software ships late these days. But, it should drive home the point that you should not plan your IT budget based on press releases.
When Raw Iron arrives, Oracle will have a unique and beneficial product offering for IT shops looking to support Internet-based database development.
Late-breaking news: A few days after finishing this column Oracle announced that the first release of Oracle8i would not ship until sometime in February. Additionally, Oracle indicated that it will not include the most intriguing feature, its Internet File System (IFS). As of now, IFS is scheduled for June availability.

From Computing News&Review, February 1999.
1999 Mullins Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.
Home.   Phone: 281-494-6153   Fax: 281-491-0637