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Oracle: Just say no to operating systems

Company is determined to keep making its statement, time and time again, that, someday, the operating system won't matter.

[Update: Corrected name of rPath CEO Billy Marshall.]

There's a nasty little war afoot over the future of the operating system.

In one corner you have the operating system vendors.

They're building in virtualization, for example. This increases the depth of their software stack. The OS vendors present virtualization as a natural addition to existing operating system functions and a means to integrate an increasingly-common software capability.

That's fair enough. But it's also about control, especially in a world where owning the hypervisor gives you an advantage when up-selling to management layers and other value-add software in which there's real money to be made (as opposed to the raw hypervisor, which is becoming increasingly commoditized).

As we saw last week in the case of Red Hat, OS vendors are on the lookout to circumvent attempts to make their operating systems (and their brands) irrelevant. In Red Hat's case, it was to quash the efforts of software appliance makers to effectively make the OS just a supporting feature of the application.

In another corner, you have the application vendors and their fellow travelers.

Software as a service (SaaS) is one aspect of this war. Taken to its logical extreme, it may change the role of systems companies as well as operating system vendors. However, we don't need to look that far into possible futures to see the application vendor front in this war.

Take the appliance makers that Red Hat was taking on last week. Rpath CEO Billy Marshall writes: "Fortunately for all of us, 'certification' will be a thing of the past when applications companies distribute their applications as virtual appliances." It's not hard to see why Red Hat doesn't exactly cotton to this way of thinking. After all, certification is a very large part of what Red Hat sells. And the number of applications certified to run on Red Hat comprises a huge barrier to any other Linux vendor delivering its own flavor of "Enterprise Linux."

Oracle's Unbreakable Linux is a different take from a different angle, but the end result is the same. Its concept is based on the idea that, when you buy an application from Oracle, you also get some bits that let the application sit on top of the hardware and perform necessary tasks like talking to disk. Oracle has been subsuming operating system functions like memory and storage management for years; subsuming the whole operating system was just the next logical step.

So is its latest move, coming out with its own hypervisor based on technology from the widely-used Xen Project. (Xen is also the basis for the hypervisor in Novell and Red Hat Linux--as well as OS-independent products from XenSource/Citrix and Virtual Iron.)

Just as Oracle wants to minimize the role of the OS, so too does it want to minimize the role of the hypervisor (which, as I noted, itself threatens to reduce the role of the OS--got all that?). From the vantage of Redwood Shores, VMware is getting altogether too much attention. The easiest way to minimize the impact of the virtualization players? Offer Oracle's own hypervisor.

The biggest challenge that I see facing Oracle here is similar to that facing Unbreakable Linux and software appliances in general. There's an implicit assumption that people will be willing to have one virtualization for their boxes that run Oracle and another virtualization for everything else--that the maker of the hypervisor bits doesn't matter.

So far, there's scant evidence that people are willing to be quite so blase about their server virtualization. Furthermore, brand preferences aside, it remains early days for standards that handle the control and movement of virtual machines across virtual infrastructures sourced from different vendors. It's perhaps more thinkable that Oracle database and application servers might be kept independent from a general virtual infrastructure than would be the case with other, often less business-critical, applications. But, at least today, its still counter the overall trend of IT shops looking at server virtualization in strategic rather than machine-by-machine tactical ways.

As a result, I don't see this announcement having a broad near-term impact (as, indeed, Unbreakable Linux did not either, once the original raft of press stories and industry discussion died down). Rather, I see this as Oracle determined to keep making its statement, time and time again, that, someday, the operating system won't matter. That's Larry's story, and he's sticking with it.