Oracle's Ellison, once the foremost proponent of the network computer, announced a new initiative targeting archrival Microsoft. Chairman Bill Gates gave last night's keynote address at Comdex, the computer industry's biggest trade show.
Dubbed "Raw Iron," Oracle's "server appliances" bypass Windows NT and other operating systems by using a stripped-down operating system called a micro-kernel, essentially running Oracle's database program on hardware. They are scheduled to ship by March.
"This all falls under a simple umbrella. We will compete on total cost of ownership. We can deliver a lower purchase price and higher service," Ellison said. The devices would run Oracle's 8i database, its Web server and its Internet File System, which puts documents from different applications into Oracle's database to be searched and shared with other users.
"We are not doing this as a marketing stunt," he added, calling it a serious effort to reduce computing costs by simplifying management. Those costs are rising because of a shortage of trained database administrators and other technical talent, Ellison argued.
"The way to get around it is to simplify," he said.
Ellison mocked a recent Gates white paper posted on the Internet, which he said described a world where applications and data would one day reside on big computers called mega-servers.
"We agree. We're in the mega-server business," Ellison said. "Bill's vision of the future is today's Internet. That's how the Internet works, Bill."
Oracle expects the 8i appliances to appear in three configurations, with the smallest version starting for around $10,000 with four processors. For large installations, the server appliances could be custom-built with more microprocessors.
Strategically, the new initiative is aimed in part against Microsoft, which today is released version 7.0 of its SQL Server database. Oracle is maneuvering on several fronts to undermine Microsoft's position as the most important software company.
Dedicating hardware devices to run specific software applications is not a new concept. Firewall appliances for security are offered by Cisco Systems, WatchGuard, Technologic, Data General, and TimeStep, an affiliate of Newbridge Networks. Whistle Communications makes devices that run Web servers, email, and firewalls for smaller companies.
The foray into hardware sales mimics the early days of Ellison's NC initiative, although Oracle's Network Computer subsidiary now primarily markets software to run NCs and associated servers. Since earlier this year, Ellison has backed off his almost-religious promotion of NCs, arguing that they are part of the larger move to networked, not desktop, computing.
Ellison said Oracle is negotiating with Dell Computer, Sun Microsystems, Compaq Computer, and Hewlett-Packard to supply hardware to be bundled with Oracle's Internet- friendly database, due for release by year's end.
For a monthly fee, Oracle also will manage server appliances remotely, through its new Business Online service, which rents applications to customers for a fee based on the number of users.
"If the only thing you're going to run on a computer is an Oracle database, you don't need an operating system," Ellison told reporters before his speech tonight.
Ellison did not specify which kernel would be used, but it won't be Microsoft's Windows NT. Although the initial server appliances will run on 32-bit Intel chips, the true target is Intel's 64-bit Merced chips, and Windows NT supports only 32 bits.
"If you're only running Oracle on an Intel platform, to have NT underneath makes no sense," he said, praising Intel's next-generation chips as "dramatically faster." Although the number of processors per server appliance is being debated inside Oracle, Ellison favors the smallest version running on four chips, not one.
He called System 10 from Apple Computer, where he is a board member, "a wonderful candidate operating system." Other candidates: FreeBSD, NetBSD, Sun's Solaris, HP-UX, and Linux.
"If it's only Oraclel8i, they don't need much of an operating system," Ellison said. "If you're only running Oracle, you don't care what's underneath." Oracle could swap operating systems in different generations of the product with virtually no effect on users, he added.
"We are not going into the operating system business--we just don't think one is necessary," Ellison said. "We think Intel [chips] can run Oracle8i natively," meaning without an operating system.
A stripped-down operating system appeals to the hardware makers too because it will lower their support costs, Ellison argued.
Oracle is negotiating with Exodus and others to provide hosting services for its Business Online outsourcing program.