Inside Oracle Exalytics: Oracle shows its fear of SAP’s in-memory strategy

Oracle released its new in-memory analytics engine, Exalytics, at Oracle Open World 2011 this week. Media has been in a frenzy for the last 4 days and there are already over 1/4 million Google hits for Exalytics. It’s actually interesting though, as to why Oracle would release such a product.

First, Oracle’s Ellison publicly dismissed in-memory computing just 6 months ago. He claimed SAP were on drugs, building out an in-memory database, as referenced in this PC World article:

“Get me the name of their pharmacist,” Ellison said at the time. “I mean, I know a lot about in-memory databases. In fact, we have the leading in-memory database, TimesTen. This is nonsense. There is no in-memory technology anywhere near ready to take the place of a relational database. It’s a complete fantasy on their part.”

Second, Oracle has its Exadata database appliance – which is designed to serve the needs of both online transactional processing, and analytics. With Exadata, you are supposed to have all the appliance you need. Here’s what Ellison said when he unveiled Exadata:

“It is the first database machine that does online transaction processing. All the other machines: Teradata, Netezza etc. are designed just for data warehousing. Oracle Exadata version 1 was designed just for data warehousing. This is the first time a database machine has been able to do both data warehousing and online transaction processing.”

What does an Exalytics appliance look like?

The reason why Oracle were able to produce the Exalytics appliance so quickly is because it’s mostly off-the shelf hardware and software for them:

  • Sun Fire X4470M2 server with 40 cores,  1TB RAM, 6x 600GB SAS drives
  • TimesTen columnar database store (columnar feature is new)
  • Essbase OLAP database (optimised for in-memory)
  • Oracle BI Suite

So Exalytics is nothing new?Not really. It is a bunch of existing Oracle tech, optimised for in-memory, although they don’t say how, apart from the columnar TimesTen database, which will have 5-10x compression compared to the row TimesTen store.However it is neatly packaged up into an appliance which is easily purchased, and one which will probably provide good performance benefits compared to even a regular Exadata appliance.

Why is Oracle afraid of SAP?

Oracle have no need to build this appliance. It’s architecturally complex and they would make more money out of selling the premium Exadata appliance. So why did they? For my money, because Larry wanted to show SAP that he could also build an in-memory analytics appliance in a short period of time.

And this shows for the first time – in the wider market context – that Oracle might be afraid that SAP’s strategy of in-memory computing with its HANA appliance, is the right strategy. Unfortunately Oracle have missed the point.

What is the point and why does Exalytics miss it?

Oracle Exalytics and SAP HANA solve the same high-level business problem today – poorly performing reports. I’d bet if you loaded the same data into them, they are probably quite similar and would provide the same value to the customer. The problem for Oracle is: that’s not the point of SAP HANA.

SAP HANA is a simple and elegant solution that – whilst not quite there today – will, in its roadmap of future versions provide the following:

  • Excellent performance for transactional and reporting systems on the fly
  • Integrated planning engine with no separate store like Essbase
  • Elegantly architected with row and column stores and the benefits of both
  • Generic RDBMS capabilities for all business applications and platforms
Exalytics on the other hand is a bolt-on mixed-technology appliance. For Oracle to really compete with SAP, they need to throw out Exadata and Exalytics and build an in-memory RDBMS appliance that can do what both of those appliances do in one. They have the brains to do so – but will they? We will see.
Update 14/10/2011:
Thanks to David Hull for a couple of clarifications!
1) I don’t make it clear that the Exalytics appliance which is a Sun Fire X4470M2 is an Intel-based server like SAP HANA, rather than using Oracle’s SPARC technology that it acquired from Sun. There is a nice irony in this. I’m actually wondering why they use the Intel tech. It’s cheaper – but most of the components seem to run on SPARC as well.
2) TimesTen is not a columnar store – it’s still a row-based store, but is optimised using columnar compression – which gives some of the compression benefits of a columnar store, but without all the performance benefits. I missed the distinction here.

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4 Responses to Inside Oracle Exalytics: Oracle shows its fear of SAP’s in-memory strategy

  1. I don’t think ORCL is afraid of SAP at all. They just wanted to prove that SAP has no reason to claim in-mem as their own thing. As you correctly said, ORCL had all the components for a few years now, and just needed to tie a bow around all of it to make it look pretty. Also – it is a true appliance. You buy HW and license from one vendor, unlike HANA.

    SAP announced a roadmap for HANA, and ORCL did not. They have exadata and exalytics now, and they need show what is the future for each and if they will converge or not. Till they do, SAP has an upper hand. But ORCL is every bit as smart a company – and they can meet SAP wherever they are going with HANA.

    Who knows – ORCL could just put some abstracted layer on their side to make their cashcow RDBMS change to in-mem column store too. If they do that, it will be really hard for SAP to make a case for HANA replacing ORCL as DB. I think SAP should just announce that 5 years or so from now – SAP will ONLY run on HANA and not on any other DB. There maybe legal implications and so on that might make it longer and more complex. But that gives customers enough time to get out of other licenses. Any way – just a thought, and I am not going to hold my breath on that.

    I don’t think SAP needs to be afraid of ORCL either. They would do better to focus on executing against their own roadmap.

    In US – both parties say “This is what American People want” – but obviously they are just refering to their own base. So ORCL and SAP also say their architecture is what customers want. They are just refering to customers they have now, and trying to influence them to stay on. I say – just let the customers decide.

  2. John Appleby says:

    Great comments as always my friend.

    I’m happy to concede that either Oracle was afraid or wanted to stick their finger up at SAP by saying that doing in-memory analytics is easy – the rationale neither matters in the end, or is provable. And I’m behind you on the appliance point – buying Exalytics is by far easier than SAP HANA – just one sales transaction.

    But like you say the point is that SAP have a roadmap and Oracle do not. This makes Exalytics a point solution to prove a point. The question is – do Oracle have a plan behind it to compete with SAP head to head, or was it just that: a point?

    SAP has a much bigger upper hand though, which is that their in-memory solution has the capability within its visible roadmap to be a combined OLTP and OLAP engine. Exalytics does not, it is pure in-memory analytics – and Exadata does not, because it cannot perform like HANA.

    Let the customers vote with their wallets!

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