Oracle's Ellison wants to be in hardware

Larry Ellison, Oracle's CEO, plans to keep both Sun's server and chip businesses and optimize them for running Oracle software.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
3 min read

There's been a lot of speculation that Oracle purchased Sun for its software assets like Java, Solaris, and--although this point has seen more debate--MySQL. Even those of us who viewed the acquisition as a serious play by Oracle to become a full-fledged system vendor figured those systems would be mostly x86. That's not to say Oracle would kill SPARC processor development and servers outright--the installed base is too large and profitable--but it would be a business to milk, not to invest in.

However, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, writing in an e-mail interview with Reuters, claims to have big plans for Sun's server business--including its in-house processor design capabilities.

Ellison begins by stating that "we are definitely not going to exit the hardware business." It doesn't get much more definitive than that as to Oracle's overall strategy of being a systems company.

What Ellison has in mind here is integration. He goes on to write that:

While most hardware businesses are low-margin, companies like Apple and Cisco enjoy very high-margins because they do a good job of designing their hardware and software to work together. If a company designs both hardware and software, it can build much better systems than if they only design the software. That's why Apple's iPhone is so much better than Microsoft phones.

Those are fair points. And Oracle has itself experimented with hardware/software integration such as the Exadata Storage Server that uses HP hardware.

At the same time, the idea that you can be in the server business and only sell into the profitable niches strikes me as a notion that Oracle may not want to depend upon too much. (Cisco has made similar statements with respect to its Unified Computing System.) The history of the system vendor business going back at least a decade suggests that the most successful companies have supply chains and partner networks that allow them to sell pallets of small servers in addition to a smaller number of highly profitable large ones.

Ellison then goes on to make it equally clear that he's not interested in just bundling software and hardware but deeply optimizing the hardware when he writes: "Once we own Sun we're going to increase the investment in SPARC. We think designing our own chips is very, very important... Right now, SPARC chips do some things better than Intel chips and vice-versa."

By way of background, Sun's CMT SPARC chips are designed around a philosophy of handling many tasks in parallel even if it means that individual tasks may run somewhat slower than on a chip with fewer but more powerful cores. This approach lends itself well to workloads that involve a lot of relatively independent activities--such as Web and application servers. It also lends itself to very power-efficient designs.

But Ellison isn't just arguing that SPARC is good for some things and x86 is good for others. He's arguing for hardware that is truly optimized for Oracle software.

Some system features work much better if they are implemented in silicon rather than software. Once we own Sun, we'll be able to plan and synchronize new features from silicon to software, just like IBM and the other big system suppliers. We want to work with Fujitsu to design advanced features into the SPARC microprocessor aimed at improving Oracle database performance.

There remain plenty of questions about how large Oracle's investments will be and how much it will tilt toward its own processor-server-operating system-middleware-applications stack. It will, of course, continue to sell software to run on HP, IBM, Dell, or wherever else it can garner license revenue from.

However, on the face of it Oracle has grand visions for its Sun acquisition that go well beyond selectively mining some key software assets and milking the rest. Oracle's purchase of Sun was the latest example of the general shift back to a more vertically-integrated computer industry going on. This latest interview with Ellison makes that point again--with exclamation points.