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Oracle’s VMware support policy like Jekyll and Hyde

IT shops running Oracle on VMware say they often get mixed messages regarding support. Oracle Support does one thing; Oracle sales reps say another.

Rob Lowden, IT Director at Indiana University, has heard all the fears about Oracle’s VMware support policy. They don’t scare him.

Maybe that’s because the university has been doing server virtualization since 2003 and now runs 31 of 33 Oracle tier 1 applications -- comprising more than 100 Oracle instances -- on VMware. Lowden hasn’t seen anything to support some well-publicized concerns that Oracle won’t support customers running their database and applications on VMware.

“It has literally been a nonevent,” he said. “We’ve seen these scare tactics (about virtualizations) for almost a decade from all sorts of vendors. It didn’t scare us then, and we proved it over and over. Oracle was no different.”

Lowden, along with other shops running Oracle on VMware, says that Oracle’s VMware support policies are something akin to Jekyll and Hyde. But, they all add, IT shops shouldn’t be discouraged by the split personality.

Organizations that have run Oracle Database and applications for years on top of VMware’s virtualization technology said they have had little to no problem getting Oracle Support to work with them on issues. At the same time, they are hounded by what they call scare tactics by Oracle sales reps trying to convince them to stay away from VMware.

Oracle did not reply to requests for comment, either on the phone or in writing.

Oracle’s VMware support policy, technically speaking

Anyone with an Oracle Support contract can read Oracle’s technical policy regarding VMware, entitled “Support Position for Oracle Products Running on VMware Virtualized Environments:”

Oracle has not certified any of its products on VMware virtualized environments.

Oracle Support will assist customers running Oracle products on VMware in the following manner: Oracle will only provide support for issues that either are known to occur on the native OS, or can be demonstrated not to be as a result of running on VMware.

We have successfully opened many support cases on hardware and virtual. We have yet, in two years of this journey, had to reproduce anything on a physical system where they have come back and said we think this is a problem with VMware.

Nick Howell, data center engineer at IPC

That looks a little worrisome. Some IT shops have been scared off because the note says that Oracle hasn’t certified any of its products on VMware. Certification typically means that the Oracle product will be fully supported on that platform.

Traditionally, however, Oracle has only certified its products for operating systems, not anything below that at the hypervisor or hardware level. There is one recent exception: Oracle will now certify products on its own Oracle VM virtualization platform. But those running Oracle on VMware say the noncertification on VMware shouldn’t put you off.

A second area of concern is the prospect of having to replicate a problem on native hardware if Oracle Support can’t find a solution through other avenues. But this appears to be more of a way for Oracle to legally protect itself -- or spook Oracle shops considering virtualization on VMware -- rather than a practice it uses regularly, or at all.

“We have successfully opened many support cases on hardware and virtual,” Nick Howell, data center engineer at IPC, a California-based medical services company, said in a recent webcast. “We have yet, in two years of this journey, had to reproduce anything on a physical system where they have come back and said we think this is a problem with VMware.”

“They don’t not support it,” Howell added. “They just don’t certify it.”

Lowden said it has been the same at Indiana University. Despite running Oracle on VMware in production for three years, he and his staff have never had to replicate a problem on native hardware.

And only a few days after announcing its own Oracle VM hypervisor back in 2007, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison himself said in a meeting with analysts that Oracle would support its products on VMware.

“So, if a customer has a problem running on VMware and -- with the Oracle database, then call for support, the support will be given in that kind of configuration?” one analyst asked.

“Yes, essentially, yes,” Ellison replied.

The Jekyll and Hyde of Oracle VMware support and sales reps

Organizations running Oracle on VMware describe an environment in which Oracle Support provides full assistance for its products running on VMware, but sales reps do their best to discourage it.

Lowden, when talking about the “scare tactics” vendors had used over the years to discourage server virtualization, said most of them came from the reps.

“I think, from our perspective, the majority was on the sales side,” he said.

Dave Welch, chief technology officer at IT consultant House of Brick, said that IT shops can save a lot of money through server virtualization. It used to be that data centers would have one server per application, with each server running at 10% CPU utilization. With server virtualization, companies can consolidate servers and have multiple applications on one box running consistently at 60% or 70% utilization. That allows companies to save money on hardware, as well as potentially on software licensing.

Virtualization is definitely growing in Oracle shops. A survey of 438 members last year found that 52% were using virtualization, up from 44% the previous year. Two-thirds of those doing virtualization use VMware.

“The field, the reps are scared to death of shops like this,” Welch said.

Welch described one situation where an Oracle Support analyst sent a customer a support notice. At the top was a big paragraph in red font trying to discourage the end user from running Oracle Database on VMware and strongly encouraging that they replatform. Immediately below it, in regular font, the analyst wrote details on how a particular problem could be fixed.

Welch said it almost seemed like the paragraph in red was some kind of boilerplate inserted in there to frighten the customer, something that was out of the Oracle Support analyst’s hands.

“The thing is, if you look at Oracle’s numbers, a lot of it comes from support renewal and registrations,” Welch said. “That’s a cash cow they don’t want to rock.”

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In addition to the "certified" issue with Oracle on VMware, how did Indiana University deal with Oracle's licensing policies with VMware? Oracle states that they do not recognize VMware's soft partitioning of CPU's, so an Oracle database or application server on VMware needs to be licensed based anywhere in the environment that it can potentially VMotion to (i.e., at the ESX hosted physical layer). In the case of a dedicated VMware cluster, all of the ESX server cores in the cluster need to be licensed.

This issue with the way in which Oracle licenses their products on VMware is the big reason why we have held off putting any Oracle product on VMware.

Thanks for your comment.

Four points:

1. VMware High-Availability (HA) can be configured for VMs within the Oracle “Failover” licensing terms to a subset of specific hosts designated as primary and failover. (Each primary host must have a designated failover host.) Therefore it does not mandate the licensing of all hosts in the cluster. A VMware HA event that starts a VM on a non-licensed, designated failover host, does invoke the so-called 10-day rule.

2. vMotion falls within Oracle’s definition of Failover as it utilizes a cluster. The use of vMotion does not imply that all hosts in the cluster must be licensed. The fact that vMotion allows fail over to another host with an insignificant (usually much less than one second) outage, does not negate the fact that it is still “Failover”. There is a clear and identifiable point in time where the failover occurs, meaning execution ceases on the primary host before the VM’s execution resumes on the failover host. However, a vMotion event to a non-licensed, designated failover host, does invoke the 10-day rule.

3. If DRS is used to automatically vMotion VMs based on load, then all VMware hosts configured within that DRS rule set must be licensed. However, even this does not imply that all hosts in the cluster must be licensed, because VMs can be configured with host affinity in order to remain license-compliant on a subset of hosts within the cluster. DRS 4.1 Host Affinity Rules is one example of how VMs can be configured with such host affinity.

4. Finally, in a VMware Fault Tolerance (FT) configuration, all hosts that run either the primary or the standby VM must be licensed. We believe this falls under Oracle’s Remote Mirroring definition because the Oracle data files, executables, binaries and DLLs (shared libraries) are replicated to the mirrored storage unit, and the Oracle executables are in an installed state on the FT secondary server. But once again, this does not imply that all hosts in the cluster must be licensed. In addition, VMware HA can be configured to protect each primary and standby VM in the VMware FT configuration with its respective non-licensed, designated fail-over host as described above.

Responding to Dave's comments: we fully documented this exact scenario in detail (utilizing Oracle's Failsafe 10-day/calendar migration rules in combination with host affinity in DRS config) to Oracle Licensing in 2008. After 4 painful months of reps passing the buck and typical deflection, we were able to work the question up the corporate ladder to the director of licensing. We were given the final response that this configuration did not change Oracle's belief that this was still all soft partitioning, and we'd still have to license the whole cluster. They recommended we build a dedicated ESX cluster just for Oracle.

We instead took a more intelligent route and pulled all database services to the edge of our cloud. We now run a shared RAC cluster for all Oracle services and have consolidated our licenses there.

If you have worked with Oracle Licensing and given a different response, can you refer me to the folks you spoke to?