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Exadata, Exalogic, and Oracle’s move into the converged cloud

Can Oracle effectively deliver a cloud platform with their Exadata and Exalogic server appliance products?

Cloud computing has become one of the most important technologies to infiltrate the data center, and Oracle has not ignored the trend. The cloud requires advanced hardware and software to function properly. To date, that meant integrating software and hardware from various vendors, forming an almost symbiotic relationship between independent vendors, and using platforms as the glue that binds the elements together to build a cloud entity.

However, getting there is not always an easy trip. Some software products don’t offer the ideal compatibility with some hardware products, and some software vendors require specific hardware requirements to guarantee that their products work properly. That has led to a management nightmare in the form of maintaining a heterogeneous platform that consists of a lot of moving parts from a variety of vendors. It is a far from perfect amalgamation of independent products that don’t often work together.

Oracle is aware of those challenges and has devised a way to create a better relationship between hardware and software. That creative energy has resulted in the delivery of Oracle’s Exadata and Exalogic product lines, which meld hardware and software together into singular offerings that eschew many of the problems associated with cloud services derived from heterogeneous platforms.

But there are still several obstacles to overcome when trying to deliver a unified platform for cloud services. The real question here becomes “Can Oracle effectively deliver a cloud platform with their Exadata and Exalogic products?”

To answer that question, one must take a closer look at the origins, goals and offerings behind each product and look at the integration challenges, as well as how Exadata and Exalogic differ from competing ideologies.

Exadata: Oracle’s integrated database machine

When first introduced in 2008, Oracle Exadata Version 1 took the form of a collaboration between Oracle and Hewlett-Packard Co. The goal was to create a single-vendor appliance that functioned as an enterprise-level database machine, one that incorporated everything needed to provide an enterprise with ultra-fast access to data stored in corporate databases. In short, a data warehousing solution with simpler setup, management and maintenance. Oracle provided the software – including the operating system, database, storage software and management –while HP provided the specialized hardware that allowed Exadata to be integrated into a hardware appliance. According to Oracle, at the time the Exadata appliance was the fastest database server on the planet.

With Oracle’s purchase of Sun Microsystems, there was a fundamental change to the Oracle Exadata product line that shifted the hardware portion from HP to Sun. That change resulted in Oracle Exadata V2. However, V2 was more than just a change to the appliance hardware. It brought with it increased performance and support for high-volume online transaction processing (OLTP). It also offered better compression of data to reduce hard-drive storage needs. 

At the heart of Exadata V2 is Oracle Database 11g Release 2. Exadata V2 is available with several hardware configurations, defined as a “stack” approach. Customers can get a full rack, half-rack or quarter-rack, or they can string several full stacks together. The Sun-designed hardware incorporates high-performance technologies to maximize throughput. Hardware is derived from Sun Fire X series servers, which are built with Intel Xeon (Nehalem class) CPUs, 72 GB of memory (per database server) 40 Gb InfiniBand connectivity, and four 10-gigabit Ethernet ports.

Storage servers (which are connected via InfinBand to the database servers) offer large hard-drive capacities, ranging from 600-gigabyte SAS drives to 2-terabyte SATA drives. The storage machines use Sun’s FlashWire technology, which places local, high-performance cache directly on the disk controllers. Collectively, the database servers (now called compute servers) and the storage servers are called the Oracle Database Machine (ODBM).

Oracle’s stack approach allows multiple compute servers and storage servers to be integrated together – in a single rack or across multiple racks. That effectively creates a database grid, which can support cloud-based initiatives, expansive Software as a Service (SaaS) rollouts and big data analytics.

With a highly efficient database and high-performance hardware on tap, Oracle is claiming that Exadata V2 is the fastest data warehousing and OLTP solution on the market. The company has published results that show Exadata is capable of 1 million random I/Os per second.

All of that performance comes at a price. Exadata V2 can be quite expensive to purchase and deploy, with a single Exadata server and compute server coming roughly at more than $100,000, and quarter-rack deployments roughly costing more than $300,000, all the way up to a full rack costing $1 million and more. Of course, pricing varies based upon discounts, Oracle incentives, partner competition and market fluctuations. While deep pockets are required to implement Exadata, competing solutions can cost more in time and money, as well as the performance delivered. It all comes down to the price-to-performance ratio to determine the value of Exadata

Oracle Exalogic

Exalogic is Oracle’s answer to the demand for high-performance, reliable cloud solutions. Oracle used many of the lessons learned from the development of Exadata to come up with the basics of Exalogic, which was announced in September last year. Oracle created Exalogic based on many of the key tenants of Exadata, especially with the goal of having the two products work in conjunction to deliver high-performance elastic clouds with copious amounts of data processing involved.

Exalogic uses the same concept of integrating all necessary software and hardware into an appliance model that supports Oracle’s stacking ideology. While not plug-and-play, Exalogic brings simplicity to private and public clouds and the ability to effectively deliver applications from within.

Exalogic deployments are based on racks. Users can buy partial racks and build from there up to as many as eight full racks. During the product announcement press conference in September, Oracle Chairman and CEO Larry Ellison announced that Exalogic can handle more than 1 million HTTP requests per second, and that it would take just two Exalogic racks to handle all of Facebook’s traffic.

Exalogic hardware is preassembled and delivered in a standard 19-inch, 42 U rack. The Sun-derived hardware consists of as many as 30 64-bit Intel multicore processor-based servers, 40 Gb InfiniBand-based I/O fabric, 40 TB of SAN disk, 1 TB of solid-state drives and 3 TB of memory. Each Exalogic configuration works as a unit of elastic cloud capacity and contains a number of hot-swappable compute nodes; a clustered, high-performance disk storage subsystem; and a high-bandwidth interconnect fabric comprising the switches needed to connect every individual component within the configuration as well as to externally connect additional Exalogic or Exadata Database Machine racks.

Each Exalogic configuration incorporates multiple 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports, allowing integration with other data center equipment and management networks. All Exalogic configurations are fully redundant at every level and are designed with no single point of failure. On the software side, Exalogic incorporates Oracle's virtual machine (VM) technology and two guest operating systems – Solaris and Linux – as well as the core Exalogic software, the operating system, Oracle's JRockit and HotSpot, and WebLogic and the Oracle Coherence caching solution.

The pros and cons of Oracle’s Exadata and Exalogic approach

It is easy to identify the obvious benefits offered by Oracle’s approach to elastic clouds and data warehousing. First and foremost is the single vendor approach of providing all of the primary elements. Oracle’s one-stop-shop approach helps to simplify licensing, support, upgrades and integration, with a single vendor handling all of those elements. That can help to prevent finger pointing between vendors that often occurs during technical issues. Provisioning, upgrades and integration tends to be easier with the single-vendor approach, thanks to a single point of contact for those issues and validated paths to follow for simplified deployment.

Other advantages include optimized performance, improved fault tolerance and rapid deployment. Nevertheless, some of those advantages can also translate into disadvantages. For example, a single-vendor solution usually means that you are locked into that vendor’s platform, making it difficult to transition to another vendor. In Exadata’s case, that disadvantage may not be as severe, simply because the organization probably already has a commitment to run on Oracle Database. On the other hand, the Oracle databases housed on an Exadata system can always be transitioned to other hardware if needed, lessening the single-vendor lock-in problem.

With Exalogic, the single-vendor paradigm tends to be more severe, simply because Oracle’s Exalogic locks buyers into a variety of Oracle technologies, ranging from Fusion Middleware to JRockit and HotSpot. There is no direct path to a competitor in that situation.

Other disadvantages include price (for hardware and software licenses), the high cost of support contracts and the need to perform scheduled upgrades. With a heterogeneous solution, IT managers have more control over pricing, scaling and other issues, yet they will be forced to “self-integrate” multivendor solutions.

Because of the scale of processing involved, it is difficult to draw direct comparisons between competing solutions, especially those that are custom-built from off-the-shelf components. However, some of the functionality of Exadata and Exalogic can be created using common rack-mounted blade systems, high-performance storage area networks and applications available from other vendors. Databases can be derived from a number of commercial or open sources, while OLTP capabilities are available from a number of software vendors.


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