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Oracle, Sun team against Microsoft

The new class of machines, which won't need a separate OS, is intended to blunt Microsoft's inroads into the enterprise software market.

The network computer concept isn't dead--it's just moved to servers.

Today, Oracle and Sun Microsystems announced a licensing deal that will create a new class of server "appliances" based on Oracle's database software and parts of Sun's Solaris operating system.

Code-named Raw Iron, server appliances are intended to blunt Microsoft's push into the enterprise software market because they will be cheaper and easier to manage than today's multifunction machines. And, although server appliances contain parts of Solaris, they will not need a separate operating system, which will further reduce management costs in comparison to Windows NT machines.

Server appliances will essentially exist for one function: to run the amalgamated Oracle-Sun database. The software will run on both Sun's Sparc architecture as well as servers based around Intel chips.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who several years ago popularized the concept of so-called network computers designed to replace PCs, said the database server appliances will drastically simplify the installation, management, and costs associated with business applications. Reducing costs and simplifying management was also the aim of the much-heralded but hardly successful NC.

Ellison introduced the reincarnated concept at last month's Comdex trade show in Las Vegas.

Raw Iron systems will consist of Oracle's 8i database server and an operating system kernel based on Sun's Solaris. The systems are intended to be self-contained and require little of the "rocket science" needed to install and tune Oracle's full-scale database server.

"This is preconfigured, and you plug it in and it runs," Ellison said. Raw Iron can also be upgraded to the full version of Solaris, the companies said.

Oracle 8i includes its own file system, which the company developed in an attempt to free itself from operating system technologies controlled by Microsoft. Ellison has also complained that Microsoft has not released the application programming interfaces (APIs) to underlying Windows NT technologies, such as the OS's file system.

Ellison said Raw Iron will debut in March, on Sparc microprocessor-based hardware from Sun, and on Intel-based systems from as-yet unnamed manufacturers.

Ellison also added that Oracle's previously announced business application outsourcing venture, called Oracle Business OnLine, will use Raw Iron and run on Solaris. Business OnLine is scheduled to debut next month.

The Raw Iron-equipped systems will be sold by Sun and other hardware makers.

At Comdex, Ellison said that Oracle was negotiating with Sun, along with Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, and Hewlett-Packard, to supply the hardware component of Raw Iron. Today, he said that Raw Iron will be resold by Sun and that "we will have a number of companies doing fulfillment."

Oracle seeks support
When later pressed for details, Ellison admitted that Dell and the other PC makers "won't sign up until we ship" Raw Iron. Dell, Compaq, and HP, however, have not yet officially commented on their product plans for Raw Iron servers.

A Dell spokesman said the company hasn't reviewed the initiative in depth but that it would support it if customer demand exists.

"We're working with Oracle on a lot of their key initiatives," he said. "To the extent that this initiative better servers customers, we will support it. They are rallying as much support as they can."

An Intel spokeswoman said that the chip giant is similarly ambivalent about the Raw Iron concept. On Friday, Intel released a hardware reference platform for "server appliances," or limited-function servers for specific market segments. The Oracle/Sun software layer could conceivably run on top of a hardware server based around the Intel specification.

Yet despite the fact that the two efforts are complementary, the spokeswoman admitted that the two efforts are not being pursued jointly. Like Dell, Intel now knows of the Raw Iron concept, but has not forwarded a definite statement of action with regard to it. It will evaluate it, the spokeswoman said.

Ellison himself said that the Sun deal is not exclusive. The database company also has a tight relationship with Hewlett-Packard, making it a natural choice for future partnerships.

As part of the deal, Sun will combine components of Oracle's 8i database with Solaris to support Sun middleware, including application server and mail server software. Sun CEO Scott McNealy said the deal, combined with the recent pact with AOL and Netscape Communications, gives Sun attractive technology to showcase its servers. "That's what moves servers long term," McNealy said.

Going after Microsoft
Most are viewing the collaboration as a direct attack on Microsoft.

"What Oracle and Sun are doing here is cutting out Microsoft," said Rob Enderle, analyst at Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "That would get them both excited and is reasonably compelling."

It is also a "Plan B" for Sun and Oracle, which previously promoted network computers as the way to break Microsoft's chokehold on the industry. The firms have since backed off that idea, leaving the desktop as is. Instead, they are looking at the server as the means to loosen Microsoft's grip.

But like the NC, the success of this plan will depend greatly on others' acceptance of the idea.

"The ultimate success will depend on the willingness of independent software vendors to build and support applications on the platform and on the acceptance of these application-specific servers by enterprise customers," AMR Research concluded in a report on the Raw Iron concept.

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