Only ten years ago if you wanted to store a lot of data, you went and talked to one of a small number of vendors that sold equipment that would support it. You paid a handsome sume of money to either Digital (Compaq), HP, IBM, Sun or perhaps Silicon Graphics, Fujitsu and Sequent, and they gave you a massive computer which you hooked into a power station.
Then you went to talk to either Oracle, Informix or IBM and they sold you some expensive database software so you could make it work. A big database license on one of these systems can cost in excess of $10m.
The noughties: the decade of consolidation & commoditisation
During the first decade of the 21st century, this market consolidated. HP bought Compaq and with it the Digital UNIX systems, which it subsequently butchered. SGI had bought MIPS and stopped making CPUs, so HP made CPUs based on the Intel Itanium platform. Oracle bought Sun. SGI stopped making expensive custom UNIX hardware – they makebig systems based on Intel x86 and Fujitsu make supercomputers based on their SPARC architecture they share with Oracle. IBM bought Informix and Sequent.
If that confused you, don’t worry. You can still buy a mainframe from Oracle (Sun), HP and IBM. And database software from IBM or Oracle. It’s worth bearing in mind that HP’s platform is crap and the lack of a sensible roadmap (and lack of Oracle support) suggests that it is being sunsetted. To be honest, Itanium (dubbed Itanic) was a lame duck that never got off the ground. Sure, HP is suing Oracle over this, but that’s just a charade to make customers feel better.
The rise of Wintel/Linux/Virtualization dominance
Three additional dimensions have emerged. First, Intel’s x86 range of CPUs have become much much faster, and for most purposes, a single pizza box system can serve 99% of computing needs – even for a multi-terabyte database.
Second, Linux has emerged as a stable and more-or-less free (you pay for support from one of the large vendors like RedHat or SUSE in many Enterprise scenarios) Operating System. It runs on just about anything from your cellphone to very large systems.
Third, we have achieved massive consolidation of equipment using virtualization software like VMware. This is because most systems sat there idle, so you can take 50 or 100 systems and put them on one physical piece of equipment. This isn’t that relevant to this discussion because we’re talking about large scale systems, which VMware doesn’t help.
What’s more for commodity applications, Microsoft’s Windows and SQL Server database are pretty attractive. They’re cheap and easy to use for mid-size data volumes, which isn’t really the focus of this article. Microsoft would argue that they compete with DB2 and Oracle, but this isn’t the case for databases >10TB: IBM and Oracle still rule the roost.
The stop-gap: Teradata and Exadata
First Teradata and now Oracle’s Exadata have now built custom hardware based around largely commodity components. They are both based on the Intel x86 platform and Linux Operating System and both built on largely the same premise: make everything parallel.
But Teradata and Exadata only benefit customers from a performance perspective. Despite using commodity components, they are extremely expensive and profitable for Teradata and Oracle respectively. Plus you are tied into their platform and they will come knocking for their maintenance dollars.
For my money both these technologies represent an opportunity in the market for the vendors but it is not the end-game.
Where SAP HANA fits in
SAP HANA and other solutions like Hadoop, are truly fascinating. SAP HANA runs on high-end commodity hardware and provided you have enough memory to run your database, it doesn’t matter what you run it on from a technology standpoint.
Initial certified hardware solutions are still quite expensive – I priced up a 1TB Dell system for $75k – not including disk storage, which will probably double that number at retail price, so think $150k. But really that’s nothing compared to what an equivalent 10TB database cost 10 years ago (SAP HANA compresses 10:1 compared to databases back then).
And worryingly for Oracle, Teradata, IBM and HP, it is nothing compared to what Mainframe or Teradata/Exadata hardware costs.
Where does this leave us today?
In the short term we have IBM posting higher profits from Mainframe sales, HP in all kinds of organizational trouble and Oracle focussing on Exadata. This figures as people will keep buying mainframes to stay in support. This market won’t die out for many years, but it will start to tail off by 2015.
The decline of the mainframe
IBM at a global level don’t care because they already know their hardware business is in terminal decline. They sold off their PC business to Lenovo and their services business is growing at a sufficient rate that that it’s all good. Although I’m not sure if the SVP of Hardware at IBM feels the same way – you can bet his targets aren’t decreasing year on year. Besides IBM have the best and dominant mainframe platform, for various reasons.
Teradata should know by now that they’re screwed long-term, and HP have bigger problems, like how to stay alive. Mainframes aren’t a focus for them.
Oracle remain arrogant (plus ça change!) – and in reality may innovate fast enough for this not to be a problem for them. They have an in-memory product called TimesTen in development which will no doubt compete with SAP HANA. And Oracle has traditionally run on the kitchen sink, including hardware from most of the above vendors. I suspect they will move away from the appliance game again over a period of time.