Oracle's Raw Iron plan not fully forged

Analysts are still sorting out details and questioning Oracle and Sun's plans to create a new class of server "appliances."

Mike Ricciuti Staff writer, CNET News
Mike Ricciuti joined CNET in 1996. He is now CNET News' Boston-based executive editor and east coast bureau chief, serving as department editor for business technology and software covered by CNET News, Reviews, and Download.com. E-mail Mike.
Mike Ricciuti
3 min read
Oracle's Raw Iron plan isn't fully forged.

A day after Oracle and Sun Microsystems disclosed plans to create a new class of server "appliances" based on Oracle's database software and parts of Sun's Solaris operating system, analysts are still sorting out details and questioning the plan's target market.

The Raw Iron plan is an attempt to create a new market for database server appliances that can lower overall costs and simplify administration. The plan is also intended to blunt Microsoft's push into the enterprise software market. Although the Raw Iron 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.

At least that's what Oracle argues.

Industry analysts say the essence of the deal isn't really about databases: It's about control of the platform for business application deployment. Right now Microsoft has it, and Oracle and Sun want it. But for Raw Iron to succeed, the two companies need to prove that they can set aside their own competitive differences.

"The two companies that are most vehemently anti-Microsoft have traded arms," said Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Each needs a little of what the other has--but fundamentally they are competitors for the platform to run business applications."

Gillett said the companies have not sorted out key points of the agreement, such as how the Raw Iron appliances will be sold. "There was nothing [in the press conference yesterday] about selling each others' products. The engineers [at Oracle and Sun] cooperated on Raw Iron to some extent, but the sales forces still go tooth and nail in the marketplace."

What makes many analysts skeptical of the plan's long term potential is Oracle's apparent move into the operating system market. Raw Iron includes many of the functions considered to be part of an operating system: a file system, directory services, messaging, and other services. In fact, Oracle's 8i database, which is part of the Raw Iron package, includes its own Internet File System intended to obviate the need for Windows NT.

From Oracle's point of view, the Raw Iron concept is to hide and diminish the importance of the operating system. That, however, will prove to be a hard line for Sun--which prides itself on its market leading Solaris operating system--to follow in the long run.

"On the one hand you have Sun increasingly dependent on Solaris, and on the other, Oracle trying to minimize the importance of the underlying platform. As usual with Oracle, it just enters the game with channel and partner conflict built-in," said Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies. "I don't buy Oracle's contention that it is not moving into the operating system business."

Others said the concept of a preconfigured, pretuned, database bundle won't resonate with the hard-core Unix followers. Zona Research, in a bulletin issued yesterday, questioned whether the information appliance model, which has worked extremely well for network storage products, will work in the Unix database market, where users tend to optimize the underlying operating system to work with their applications.

And, as previously reported, Oracle hasn't yet sewn up support for Raw Iron from the hardware community. Despite Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's earlier comments, Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, and Hewlett-Packard have not yet officially commented on their product plans for Raw Iron servers.

"We're in discussions with Oracle on its Raw Iron initiative, but it's premature for Compaq to discuss any details at this time," Compaq spokesman Ted Bockius said today.

If Oracle can sort out the details, analysts see a potentially huge market for specialized server appliances, particularly in organizations that are also eyeing Windows NT and Microsoft Back Office for server applications. Most praise Oracle for making an attempt to simplify what has been an extremely complicated set-up and management procedure for database server software.

Davis said Raw Iron could help organizations that lack skilled database administrators on staff. "If you can drop in a system like this and it fits my infrastructure and it's easy to manage, then there is real value, he said. "If that all comes together, this will be a very popular product."

Gillett added that Raw Iron could help minimize the number of platforms supported by the typical IS organization: "Interoperability is still a hassle. Most companies will be doing well to get down to two application platforms. There's unbelievable complexity in managing these applications," he said.