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Don't wait for clarity on Oracle's VM strategy, experts say

While Oracle's approach to virtualization has left many confused, the technology is too important to wait for, according to some.

When Oracle Corp. announced its own virtualization management software, Oracle VM, late last year, the company brought credibility to the notion that Oracle applications could be successfully virtualized. Despite this, Oracle managed to muddy the virtualization waters at the same time by claiming publicly that it wouldn't support virtualized systems that weren't running on Oracle VM. But, in practice, Oracle seems to have tacitly supported them anyway.

Furthermore, Oracle has implied that Oracle VM is three times more efficient than "other server virtualization products" -- read x86 market-leading VMware -- but the company has been reluctant to provide benchmarking proof. So which should a customer choose? Is it better to wait until all the virtualization dust settles?

Few experts seem to think that simply watching and waiting is a good idea. Virtualization is a widespread IT movement that usually results in hardware cost reductions, smaller data center footprints, energy savings, and overall systems management savings.

Support vs. functionality
The key question is the issue of "official" Oracle support over VMware's functionality lead.

"VMware really created the market for x86-based virtualization," noted Tony Iams, vice president and analyst of enterprise operating systems for Ideas International in Port Chester, N.Y. "If you really care about functionality on x86, then really nothing else matches VMware today."

"If you really care only about virtualizing Oracle systems," Iams added, "you're going to get very strong support from Oracle."

Still, Dave Welch, CEO of House of Brick, a consulting services organization that currently recommends VMware to its Oracle customers, said that his company has observed that Oracle will attempt to support problems even if an Oracle implementation is running virtually on VMware and Oracle hasn't seen the problem first on native hardware.

"The public policy statements on Oracle's part and what Oracle Support does in practice day to day are very different things," Welch said, noting that some companies have individually negotiated private agreements with Oracle to provide support for their non-Oracle VM environments.

Not even worried
Some customers, like Creighton University in Omaha, aren't particularly worried about Oracle support policies, in part because they started with VMware before Oracle VM was even available. In the meantime, Creighton has found VMware to be stable and cost-effective for virtualizing Oracle application servers and databases. For some production environments that remain on dedicated hardware, Creighton replicates to a virtual failover server; and once, when the production version went down, the virtual server picked up the slack flawlessly.

Nevertheless, Creighton didn't jump into the virtualization pool without looking. "When we first started with virtual machines, we hit the low-hanging fruit first," explained Mark Panning, a project manager for the university.

Watch the I/O
"We gather metrics on an application to measure CPU usage, memory usage, and disk I/O to see the traffic and how hard it's being hit -- you don't want it to be too intensive," Panning said.

Of course, Oracle-focused virtualization is thriving on Unix-based servers as well as x86-based servers, Iams said, noting that Unix-based solutions tend to be more integrated with the hardware itself.

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"On x86, virtualization works better the less I/O is involved," Iams said. "Any compute-bound workload is going to be best suited for virtualization, and as you start to depend on more memory, you want to be a little more careful; and then as you introduce I/O, that's where you want to be the most careful because I/O is the hardest part of the virtualization problem to solve. Because databases tend to be I/O heavy, any time you virtualize a database, you need to be careful."

The scale of the workload is what matters most, however. "You just need to be conscious of the load, and lightly loaded databases are absolutely suitable for virtualization," Iams said. "But on other platforms such as Unix and RISC-type systems, a lot of those I/O problems have been solved, and you don't have to worry as much about them."

Iams said there is a wide variety of virtualization scenarios in the industry. For example, various workloads, including databases, could be consolidated on a single larger machine with the primary rhyme and reason being I/O levels that fit well together.

If you're working on a small enough scale, another scenario is to collapse related applications and databases. "You could have a Linux server running the database, the application tier hosted on Windows, and then maybe the Web tier on another Linux system," Iams explained. "And you can have all of that running on the same box now."

Chris Maxcer is a freelance writer.

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