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Oracle thinks grid with database update

The software maker readies a major release of its flagship database, the first step toward a utility computing plan.

Oracle will next month take the first steps toward a utility computing plan by adding "grid" capabilities in its database and application server software.

Oracle will unveil an update to its flagship database, renamed Oracle 10g, and its Oracle Application Server 10g at its OracleWorld customer conference in San Francisco next month. As part of the database overhaul, Oracle will update its Enterprise Manager database management software. The company declined to indicate when finished versions of the product would be delivered, except to say that it is beta testing the database with customers. Testing programs typically lasts several months to a year, which means that Oracle 10g will likely ship sometime in 2004.

Oracle is betting that, by adding grid capability to its database, it will gain an edge over database rivals IBM and Microsoft and make its software a natural choice for large businesses and service providers that offer utility computing.

The two technologies go hand-in-hand. Grid computing unites pools of servers, storage systems and networks into one large system that better tackles complex computing jobs by sharing the workload across multiple machines. A business could run its financial reporting and human resources applications on a grid of several linked database servers, for example. When financial reports are due at the end of the month, the database administrator could automatically provision more servers to the financial application to handle a spike in demand.

Utility computing harnesses the power of grid systems to deliver on-demand applications and data access, usually for a fee.

Grids have found favor in academic and research environments, where scientists can get quicker answers to difficult computational problems by tapping into a grid of networked servers rather than into a single, large computer. But grid computing has yet to catch on in the business world.

Oracle hopes to beat rivals with grid capabilities and thus drive additional sales. The database maker still has the lead in sales of databases that run on Windows and Unix operating systems, but overall, it lost ground to IBM and Microsoft last year, according to research from Gartner Dataquest.

Oracle, IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard are among the companies developing grid technologies that are aimed at corporations. By making grid capabilities available to mainstream businesses, companies can solve complex computing jobs or make better use of their existing hardware and software infrastructure, said Robert Shimp, vice president for database marketing at Oracle.

The key design goal of the Oracle 10g database is the ability to create a pool of database capacity that can be shared by several applications, Shimp said. "Most people assume that grid computing is five or 10 years away, but there is a real application to take advantage of the features and capabilities of grid computing today."

Oracle's foray into the resource-sharing capabilities of grid computing is a first step toward the notion of utility computing, Shimp said. With utility computing, businesses pay for computing resources on an as-needed basis, much like purchasing electricity or water. Oracle's database grids address more efficient provisioning of servers and the idea of creating a "virtual" pool of many different servers, which are two aspects to the utility computing vision, Shimp said.

Competitors of the database company, including and Sun, have each laid out ambitious utility-computing plans to manage complex data centers. The plans encompass more flexible use of hardware and database servers, along with storage and networking gear from several different providers.

By contrast, Oracle's grid-computing initiative is focused only on delivering grid-ready versions of its database, application server and related software.

"Oracle's approach is a two-sided sword. It's not as broad as the overall utility initiatives from IBM, HP and Sun, but (Oracle) is actually delivering components today versus three to five years from now," Meta Group analyst Mark Shainman said. "The others are taking a much more high-level, overlaying idea that all their technology groups are moving toward."

Oracle 10g is an extension of the company's Oracle database clustering technology. With Oracle 9i Real Application Clusters (RAC), companies string together several relatively low-cost hardware servers to perform the job of larger and more expensive servers. Clusters also provide backup in case one server goes down. Oracle has been touting its clustering software, which has servers running Linux as the most cost-effective configuration.

Oracle 9i RAC is limited to running a single application on a cluster of servers. With Oracle 10g, a company can have several applications run across a network, or grid, of servers. Using Oracle's Enterprise Manager software, administrators will be able to provision more database servers based on changes in demand for processing power.

The company is targeting its 10g database and application server primarily at large companies. However, the grid capabilities of Oracle 10g will benefit smaller companies that are looking to purchase database capacity on an outsourced basis, Shimp said. The workload-sharing features of database grids make it more economical for outsourcing service providers to offer hosted applications, he said.

Oracle is a member of the Global Grid Forum, which is working on XML-based grid standards for tasks such as load balancing, security and provisioning. The standards are designed to allow a single management console to share a workload across systems from many different providers. But they are still in the design phase and are not expected to be widely implemented in products for a few years.

Although Oracle's database grids promise more effective use of server hardware, the overall cost-effectiveness of the configuration relies highly on the strength of the management software, Shainman said.

Running more servers generally requires more administrative people, which is the biggest factor in cost.

"For 10g to be successful, it must extract the complexity from the end user so that the setup and management of grids is easy," said Shainman. "Its success hinges on that."

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