Weigh the benefits of Oracle on mainframe vs. x86

Until recently, big databases always meant using big iron. But as software and hardware evolves, Oracle on mainframe is becoming less common.

Large-scale databases got their start when mainframes ruled the day. Those databases grew exponentially, requiring bigger and better mainframes. More data meant more processing power, and leveraging that data effectively meant more speed as well. As databases continuously grew, and access speed defined the value of the data, mainframes cemented their relationships with large-scale databases. Oracle on mainframe was no different.

But something changed along the way. The microprocessor was born and caused a stir. Today, x86 CPUs and their relatives have grown in power and capabilities, challenging the mainframe market. Much like mainframes, x86 servers can use virtualization, leverage multiple cores and partition off CPU availability. In short, x86 server technology has grown up and now rivals mainframes when it comes to some features.

Yet there are still areas where mainframes have the edge, and those particular advantages may mean a lot to a database administrator running Oracle on mainframe. First off the bat is reliability -- properly maintained mainframes sport reliability promises that x86 machines cannot. Mainframes can operate for years without downtime, thanks to the maturity of the hardware and operating systems used, as well as built-in redundancy and proactive monitoring and management features.

Nevertheless, x86 server technologies now offer failover, load balancing and virtualization technologies that can significantly improve uptime. What's more, many of those technologies enable scalability, allowing x86 servers to scale up to large enterprise demands.

So should one rely on big iron or choose x86 technologies for an enterprise Oracle Database? There is no simple answer to that question, but one can narrow the playing field by looking at the pros and cons of each option and then defining what is more beneficial for a given environment.

Benefits of Oracle on mainframe

First, let's take a look at what big iron has to offer.

Reliability. It is hard to beat the reliability offered by Oracle on mainframe. Hundreds of examples exist that show mainframe systems have operated for years without service interruption.

Scalability. Big iron is designed to scale, offering a dizzying array of options and updates that allow mainframes to service the largest enterprise.

Stability. Proven technologies and stable software releases bring reliability to mainframe systems, which are not plagued by frequent patches and updates that can introduce uncertainty into the equation.

Security. Mainframe OSes are better hardened against attacks and are not susceptible to most of the malware, viruses and brute force attacks that have become a menace to x86 systems.

Support. Varying levels of rapid response support is readily available and provided by the mainframe vendor, making it easier to solve problems.

Relationship. Mainframe vendors tend to have interactive relationships with customers, providing proactive services, free advice and efficient upgrade programs.

Benefits of Oracle on x86

Big iron does offer several significant advantages over x86 server environments. However, x86 systems are not without their advantages as well.

Cost. Commodity servers are a fraction of the price compared to big iron environments.

Upgrade cycles. Commodity servers are easier to upgrade and cost less to upgrade than mainframe systems.

Multiple vendors. Commodity systems are available from many different vendors, helping to avoid vendor lock-in for support and upgrades.

Support. Service and support are available from a large ecosystem of vendors, resellers and consultants.

Compatibility. A plethora of software vendors creates applications and tools to run on x86 systems, with Windows-compatible software taking the lion's share of the market.

Flexibility. Commodity servers offer a vast array of options and services, making it much easier to configure x86 systems for a specific environment or project.

Future proofing. Software development cycles are usually much shorter for x86 systems and allow those systems to use the latest software packages, features and technologies.

Elasticity. Because of the inherent flexibility and low cost, x86 systems are much less expensive to scale up or down than mainframe-based systems.

While comparing Oracle on mainframe to x86 servers is not apples-to-apples, the benefits of each can still indicate which is a better fit for your Oracle environment. The majority of businesses today are leaning more and more toward x86-based servers. Budget, scale and services will pepper the final decision.

This was first published in February 2013

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