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Oracle’s virtualization support policy, technologies may get a makeover in wake of Sun deal

Oracle’s virtualization support policy is just one of several virtualization-related considerations Oracle is facing as it works to integrate Sun’s technology and customer base.

Oracle’s virtualization support policy just might get a makeover in the wake of the company’s $7.4 billion purchase of beleaguered IT giant Sun Microsystems -- and experts say that’s just one of several virtualization-related considerations Oracle is facing as it works to integrate Sun’s technology and customer base.

In addition to a possible reexamination of its virtualization support rules, Oracle should quickly address the concerns of existing Sun customers that want better virtualization functionality, analysts say. Oracle also faces the mammoth tasks of bringing Sun’s virtualization technologies in line with its own while simultaneously presenting a clear and unified marketing message to current and potential customers – a process that is already in full swing.

“If you look at virtualization, [Oracle] now has several different pieces of software that they’re going to need to integrate into one,” said Donald Feinberg, analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Group. “How long it’s going to take, I really don’t know. But it’s a pretty good bet that they’ll do it. Oracle has yet to screw up an acquisition.”

Oracle announced that it finalized the Sun deal in late January. Sun, a company famous for its Java programming language and “mainframe-like” servers that run on SPARC processors, lost business in recent years owing to the rise of Linux and relatively inexpensive x86-based hardware.

While Oracle offers comprehensive virtualization support services for customers running its own Xen-based hypervisor, Oracle VM, the company officially refuses to support third-party virtualization tools like VMware and Microsoft Hyper-V. But the purchase of Sun and its popular Unix-based Solaris operating system could lead Oracle to rethink its support policy, according to analysts.

Along with Sun, Oracle inherited a significant number of customers that run “Solaris for x86” in third-party virtualization environments. Meanwhile, the ranks of users running Oracle databases and business applications on third-party virtualization tools are growing all the time. The point, analysts say, is that Oracle today serves all kinds of virtualization technology users and those customers may demand increased support for non-Oracle virtualization deployments over time.

“Oracle doesn’t fully support anybody else’s virtualization, but I think that is going to change,” said Dan Olds, a research analyst with Gabriel Consulting Group in Beaverton, Ore. “Virtualization has become too prevalent, and there are simply too many customers that are out there using non-Oracle virtualization.”

To be sure, some analysts think Oracle is unlikely to declare all-out support for the likes of VMware anytime soon, but they say the company could eventually cut deals or create programs that make it easier to get some level of Oracle support for non-Oracle virtualization environments.

“I think there are lots of folks that would like to see them play better with allowing Oracle to run on other [virtualization] platforms, but I don’t think that is currently in the plan,” said Barb Goldworm, founder, president and chief analyst with Focus Consulting in Boulder, Colo. “Ellison’s vision is to own the full stack and tune it to run better with their operating system environments, their virtualization environment and their hardware.”

Sun’s virtualization capabilities lacking?

Oracle is also facing questions from customers who feel that Sun’s SPARC-based virtualization capabilities are lacking, said Tony Iams, an operating systems and virtualization technology analyst with Ideas International in Rye Brook, N.Y.

At a recent Oracle virtualization technology event in New York, Iams spoke with several end users who expressed concerns over Sun’s virtualization track record.

“There was a sense that Sun had not really kept up with improving virtualization technology on SPARC -- that it had fallen behind what you could get on x86 from folks like VMware,” he said.

One popular feature of high-profile virtualization systems is what VMware calls Live Migration -- the ability to move a virtual machine from one server to another without any downtime. Oracle VM, Hyper-V and some other Unix vendors, such as IBM, offer similar capabilities, but Iams said Sun never made it happen for Solaris on SPARC users.

“[Live Migration] is really a key piece of the foundation of VMware’s entire platform, and it’s a really powerful function,” he explained. “When you combine [Live Migration capabilities] with availability and load balancing, power management and so on, it unlocks a lot of the power of virtualization by letting you shift the workloads around and match them to the right resources without interrupting processing.”

Oracle’s marketing machine is already working to send the message that it intends to improve virtualization on SPARC. Oracle began this process recently when it changed the name of Sun’s hardware virtualization technology from Logical Domains (Ldoms) to Oracle VM Server for SPARC, Iams said.

“By giving it the same name, they’re kind of laying out the expectation that [SPARC and x86 users] are going to have equivalent functionality on both platforms,” he said.

The Oracle-Sun virtualization technology integration challenge

With the Oracle-Sun deal finalized, analysts say Oracle must now unify both the technological capabilities and the marketing messages associated with its growing portfolio of virtualization software products. That list of products includes Oracle VM; Virtual Iron, a company Oracle acquired last year; Sun’s XVM virtualization product line; and Sun’s VirtualBox product line.

“The Sun XVM hypervisor never really made it out the door in a standalone version in the kind of form that could compete directly with VMware,” Iams said. “It’s really Oracle VM that is going to be their strategic platform on x86. That is the hypervisor that they’ll take to market and use to compete against VMware and Hyper-V and so on.”

Oracle Enterprise Manager (OEM) will become a key part of Oracle’s virtualization messaging going forward, he said. OEM is slated to become the central management console for the various virtualization technologies that make up the Oracle VM product line, according to the company.

“The hypervisor itself is getting less important, and people are caring more and more about managing the virtual infrastructure,” Iams said. “That’s where you get most of the added value.”

Virtualization of mission-critical systems remains an issue

Analysts cite the slowly increasing use of virtualization for mission-critical deployments like databases as one possible reason why Oracle might want to revisit its virtualization support policy, but end users say they still prefer virtualization for less important systems.

“Anything that is mission critical to me needs its own box,” said John Chaney, IT project manager with JanPak Inc., a Davidson, N.C.-based distributor of janitorial and packaging supplies. “That’s just my [philosophy].”

JanPak previously ran an Oracle Database 9i-based fleet coordination application in a VMware ESX Server virtualization environment. The company ultimately decided to migrate to Microsoft SQL Server 2005 after the logistics application officially ended support for Oracle 9i. Today, JanPak runs the logistics application in a standalone box but still uses VMware for other tasks.

Chaney says he prefers to use the virtualization layer to store images and templates that basically remain unchanged over time. Any dynamic, mission-critical information that finds its way to the virtualization layer should be properly and frequently backed up -- or better yet, moved to a standalone box, he said.

“VMware is really for our Web order entry front end,” Chaney explained. “The next plan is to [deploy] a standby VMware system with all our [static] images ready to boot up.”

As part of that plan, Chaney will spend time making sure that images stored on the standby VMware system do not contain too much information.

“That is my biggest thing about VMware,” he said. “It’s nice to have the image there, but really I want the VMware [layer to consist of just] the operating system and the application front.”

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