Tech giants prep high-powered databases

IBM, Oracle and Microsoft are readying supercharged versions of their databases. But the sheer processing muscle they offer still may not be enough to spur demand, analysts say.

Martin LaMonica
Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
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Oracle says it will be the first out of the gate when it ships later this month a 64-bit version of its flagship Oracle 9i database optimized for Intel's Itanium 2 on HP-UX, Hewlett-Packard's version of the Unix operating system. Versions for Linux and Windows on Itanium 2 are slated for early next year.

In April next year, Microsoft will match Oracle with a 64-bit version of its SQL Server 2000 for Itanium 2 when the company ships its first 64-bit operating system, Windows .Net Server 2003.

For its part, IBM is readying for April of next year a 64-bit version of its DB2 8.1 database for Windows .Net Server and Linux.

The 64-bit versions of these databases could be a real bargain for companies that need the additional horsepower. Database makers said the cost will be the same as the existing 32-bit versions.

Although technically impressive, 64-bit applications have remained within a rarified group of customers because they require that applications be rewritten or modified to take advantage of the powerful hardware. With the release of servers built around Intel's Itanium 2 and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron 64-bit processors next year, IT companies are hoping use of 64-bit systems will expand beyond leading-edge technology adopters.

But because most applications are designed for existing 32-bit Intel-compatible processors, the great majority of companies will be well-served by sticking with their current choice in hardware, analyst said.

"People who have very large decision-support databases and who want more cache memory, they want 64-bit systems yesterday," said Jonathan Eunice, principle analyst at research firm Illuminata. "But for the average sales support or inventory management database, frankly those applications could be suitable on 32-bit systems for five or 10 years at least."

But as companies consider their hardware server upgrade options next year, high-end 64-bit databases--and their ability to handle complex data and transactions--will start to become more common, IDC analyst Carl Olofson said.

"It will be more an evolution than a revolution in the database world. People are not going to cash in their existing systems because there's something new out there," Olofson said. "But as they are migrating, they will take a look at migrating to a 64-bit database system in the normal course of upgrading their server."

The release of 64-bit servers based on Intel and AMD processors may accelerate the move from expensive Unix systems and may increase sales of the Linux operating system, Olofson said. The availability of higher-end database systems for Intel and AMD processors isn't expected to significantly shake up the market share rankings for relational database management systems, he said.

Gaining ground
In 2001, Oracle held the lead with 43 percent of the market of relational databases on all operating systems, followed by IBM with 31 percent and Microsoft with 9 percent, according to IDC. Because of Oracle's dropping database revenue this year, Olofson expects IBM to gain some ground on last year's market share leader.

High-end 64-bit servers and databases traditionally have been used for the most demanding applications, such as high-volume e-commerce sites or huge data stores to analyze corporate operations. Databases optimized for 64-bit hardware can store great amounts of data--up to hundreds of gigabytes--in a computer's memory. Without the need to fetch data from a disk for every database query or transaction, so-called in-memory databases greatly quicken application performance and response time.

Although the number of applications that take advantage of 64-bit technology remains relatively small, the hardware may garner more ="966834">interest from companies looking to consolidate servers. Increasing pressure on IT organizations to save money is driving a wave of server consolidation, where multiple machines are replaced by fewer, more powerful boxes.

Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik, Iceland, is transitioning from a four-processor server to two single-processor Itanium 2 machines to run its Oracle e-business application suite.

The hospital was originally seeking a way to add redundancy to its applications in case its single server failed, but it found that the new configuration will provide sufficient processing power at a lower price. Because Oracle charges a per-processor fee for its software, the total cost of its back-end system will go down by moving to a cluster of two more powerful 64-bit machines, said Olafur Adalsteinsson, IT manager at Landspitali University Hospital.

"We did a request for proposal from the major companies and found that the Itanium 2 servers were maybe 15 or 20 percent more expensive than others. But if you compare all the costs, including the software licensing, it was a much cheaper solution," Adalsteinsson said. The hospital not only gains equivalent performance, but also redundancy and backup if one server fails, he said.

Server consolidation also has cost savings associated with IT labor and management, said Jeff Jones, director of strategy for IBM data management solutions. "A single platform vastly simplifies hardware administration. And the database performance is improved because you're not dealing with as many network connections," he said.

Large corporate users have traditionally used mainframe or high-end Unix systems to consolidate multiple servers, using partitioning software to manage multiple applications among processors on a single machine.

Muscling in
Until now, 64-bit databases have run exclusively on Unix servers from IBM, Sun Microsystems, HP and others, which build machines around their proprietary chip architectures. By ="975472">muscling into the realm of 64-bit computing, Microsoft and Intel intend to dethrone so-called big iron hardware, or mainframes and high-end Unix servers long the bastion of IBM, Sun and HP.

"Because Itanium 2 gives such a great cost of ownership, it makes (64-bit systems) a lot more approachable for many customers," said Sheryl Tullis, product manager for Microsoft's SQL Server database. "If companies want room to grow, they can do it much cheaper than Unix and with less complexity than a mainframe. That's where we see the tide turning."

HP and Unisys already sell Itanium 2 servers, while IBM plans to ship its own early next year. AMD will also be ="966171">girding for a piece of the high-end server market when it ships its 64-bit Opteron processor in the first half of next year. While existing 32-bit applications need to be ="976150">optimized to take full advantage of the Itanium 2 processor, AMD's ="962312">Opteron is designed to run both 32-bit and 64-bit applications unchanged.

AMD's Opteron "is a nice smooth migration story from 32 bit to 64 bit without having to go through the application adjustment process," said IBM's Jones. "Companies don't have to make changes or suffer performance degradation."

But even broadening the number of 64-bit server suppliers beyond the established Unix base will not dramatically shake up generally lackluster server ="966929">sales, analysts said.

"I can't see the introduction of a new processor getting too many CIOs excited in the current climate," said James Governor, an analyst at RedMonk. "They have better things to worry about than a new architecture without a great deal of application support."