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Oracle's rose-colored grid vision

If you're like most Oracle customers, you've heard about the potential benefits of grid computing. Industry analysts weigh in on whether it's wise to jump to grid or sit tight.

More than six months ago, Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison announced to thousands of OracleWorld attendees that grid computing was going to rock their IT worlds.

It sounded so good coming from Ellison. Shared resources, automatic load balancing, lowered costs of ownership, minimal investments -- all things that grid computing delivers to electric companies would now be available to commercial enterprises, Ellison said. The Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle centered its grid strategy around its newest database release, Oracle10g, and on the Oracle 10g Application Server.

So, was Ellison right? Is Oracle delivering on its 10g promise? The short answer is that it's too soon to tell, but the long-term outlook bodes well for Oracle. Even industry analysts who have criticized Oracle's grid strategy say that grid architectures will eventually deliver big benefits.

"Ellison's point, I think, is that for people who can't imagine having enough time or money to build a server that size, well, 10g can do it," said Carl Olofson, a research director with Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp.

So far, though, there aren't enough 10g users to determine whether Oracle's grid strategy is succeeding, analysts agree.

"[10g] probably won't start showing up in sales for at least six months," Olofson said. "Most users like to wait until there is some sort of maintenance agreement in place."

A grid primer for CIOs

Oracle DBA Arup Nanda, director of the Connecticut Oracle Users Group and a 10g beta tester, said most CIOs have three things to worry about: storage, database management and the application server. "The grid says that you don't have to have these three different layers."

For example, Nanda said that he works in an industry with a seasonal surge in demand. Like other IT shops, Nanda's grid predicts how much capacity it needs based on worst-case scenarios. Of course, that means much of the year's resources often sit idle.

"What the grid says is this: How do we transfer some assets from one department to another department?" Nanda said.

Ordinarily, Nanda's company allocates two servers to the warehouse handling reservations. At Christmas time, it pulls a server from the data warehouse and puts it into reservations. "Now, Oracle makes that very simple to do, using RAC (real application cluster) architecture. We can dynamically allocate a machine without affecting anything else."

Users can deploy this sort of technology today, according to Nanda, by using the 9i database and 10g Application Server.

"What CIOs should be doing," said Nanda, "is identifying these function islands -- the app server layer, database layer and storage layer -- and re-architecting the nodes."

But grid computing is more than automated load balancing, and Oracle's strategy -- and technology -- still have shortcomings, experts say. Nanda acknowledged that storage technology remains relatively slow. "Five years from now, I think the interconnect technology will improve so much that grid computing will really take off," he said.

More grid guidance needed

The interest in grid computing is strong, and the cost benefits are compelling, said Dana Gardner, a senior analyst with Boston-based Yankee Group.

"Our studies indicate that companies like the idea of exploiting commoditized low-cost hardware," Gardner said. "They like the idea of creating an architecture that can support many applications rather than a separate architecture or platform under each application."

However, most Oracle customers won't be building grids anytime soon. "It will take quarters, not years," Gardner said.

What can Oracle do to help? Right now, Gardner said, the company's grid strategy is missing a migration component, and Oracle should do more to tout the ease of moving to grid. He said that Oracle is conducting its grid campaign the same way it has introduced other new technologies.

"Oracle says what the database will do for you once it's in place, rather than provide you a 12-step program on how to get there," Gardner said.

Noel Yuhanna, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, said that Oracle has "additional groundwork" to do when it comes to grid.

Oracle has distinguished itself from competitors by extending its RAC technology to provide higher availability -- and better scalability -- on lower-end servers, he said. But grid is better suited for companies migrating to Linux, according to Yuhanna. (Oracle recently said it has acquired new technology that makes its grid offerings compatible with systems other than Linux.)

"But grid is still an evolving technology," Yuhanna said. "It's about the entire technology stack. All of the pieces have to integrate very well to deliver the grid computing initiatives."

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