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Commentary: Sun’s Oracle Merger

A marriage made in heaven or a deal with the devil?

Mergers & Acquisitions on Ulitzer

With only the ‘you may now kiss the bride’ custom to follow, the Oracle/Sun marriage (or dare I say Sun/Oracle) is now finally complete. After months of legal wrangling which has caused nothing but embarrassment and dwindled Sun’s stature within the market sphere, reports also came out that half of Sun's 27,000 staff will be made redundant. Thus initial indications are clear that Oracle, known for its past agnosticism to open source has an eye for the merger being based on maximizing profit. In the meantime Sun’s competitors are probably smiling wryly as the delay of the merger played into their immediate interests but what threats and challenges does this partnership now pose to the once great open source vendor which did so much for developing the tech and e-commerce industry.

One thing which Oracle will most probably do is address and remediate the main cause for Sun’s tragic decline prior to the days when talk of ‘takeovers’ and ‘falling stock shares’ became the norm. In my humble opinion that was linked to Sun failing to consolidate on its strengths by audaciously venturing into unknown avenues only to find that it couldn’t compete with the existent competition. By spreading itself too thinly the ambitious nature of the company soon led it into labyrinths it couldn’t escape from. One such adventure was its acquisition of StorageTek.

StorageTek, known for their solid modular storage arrays and robust tape libraries had a decent reputation of their own prior to Sun’s takeover. Data Center managers, IT Directors and their like knew they had solid products when they purchased the brand StorageTek but in a miscalculated maneuver, Sun decided to rename all their Storage products with the Sun Microsystems brand. Suddenly Sun’s Sales team had to sell what for the average IT Director was seemingly a new and unproven product based on an unneeded name change. Additionally when these storage products took on the same name as Sun’s other storage company, StorEdge further confusion came into the mix. Couple that with an emerging market for disk based backups, purchasing a company that’s forte was tape libraries didn’t particularly make the best business sense.

So what future does Oracle have in plan for Sun’s current Storage portfolio? One certainty is that the OEM partnership with HDS’ enterprise arrays will continue, but as for their own range of modular arrays the future doesn’t look so promising. In a market with products such as EMC’s Clariion, HDS’ AMS range and ironically Larry Ellison’s Pillar Data systems, the truth of the matter is that Sun’s current modular range simply can’t compete. As cost effective as they are, their performance and scalability were always limited in relation to their direct competitors, something that was already acknowledged by Sun prior to the takeover when they disbanded the SE6920 due to its direct competition with the HDS equivalent USPVM.

Furthermore if Oracle’s push with the Exadata V2 is a sign of things to come, one can hardly see them developing an integrated backup model based on an increasingly frowned upon tape infrastructure made by StorageTek. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with the SL8500 tape library and often wonder in amazement as the robotic arms gesticulate as if they were in the climactic scene from a Terminator movie. But that’s the problem …. it’s so 1990s. Add to the equation the NAS based SUN 7000 Unified Storage System which has received rave reviews and the question resonates as to whether Oracle will forsake its modular storage and tape libraries to further focus on just this trend.

Another venture in which Sun entered yet in hindsight did little to further their reputation was server virtualization. While VMware was taking off at the time with ESX 3 and the magic of Vmotion, DRS, HA, VCB etc. Sun had the dilemma that the server virtualization revolution taking place was compatible on x86 architecture and not Sun’s mainstay SPAARC. Not satisfied with reselling VMware for its x86 platforms, Sun decided to introduce their own version of virtualization which was compatible with their SPAARCs, namely Global zones. With huge monster servers such as the M series, the concept was to have numerous servers (zones) utilizing the resources of the one physical box i.e. the global zone. But in an industry that was moving further towards blade servers and consolidation via virtualization, the concept of having huge physical servers housing several virtual servers that couldn’t be Vmotioned and could only offer high availability by having a cluster of even more huge servers, seemed bizarre to say the least.

No one disputes the great performance and power of Sun’s SPAARC servers but to offer them as a virtualization platform is completely unnecessary. Moreover the x86 platforms which haven’t radically changed over the years apart from their purple casing now being a slicker silver one, have also proved to be less than reliable when ESX is installed upon them. Indeed my only experience of the legendary PSOD was on the one occasion I had witnessed ESX installed on Sun x86 hardware. As RedHat and others make moves into the virtualization sphere with solutions superior to the Sun model, the questions begs as to what role virtualization will hold for Oracle. Larry Ellison has already made it evident that he wants to give full support for the SPAARC, but I’m not so sure, especially when Oracle decided to house Intel Xeons and not Sun SPARCs as the core of their Exadata V2.

As for the excellent host-based virtualization of VirtualBox, the opensource nature of the product simply doesn’t fit in with Oracle’s approach of utilizing its dominant position to leverage big bucks from its customer base. With Oracle also already having Xen-based virtualization technology, I doubt virtualization will remain in the development radar of the newly occupied Sun offices. Come to think of it, will any of the opensource products remain?

Another aspect which worries me even further is the future of Solaris and ZFS. Despite Larry Ellison’s quotes of focusing on Java and Solaris, Solaris administrators still feel a touch uneasy, something which RedHat have taken advantage of by offering discount Solaris to RedHat conversion courses. As for ZFS, I’ve made no qualms as to my admiration of what is the most system admin friendly file system and logical volume manager on the market. But the recent legal wrangling over copyright with NetApp which is sure to escalate and Apple’s subsequent rejection for their OS leaves the revolutionary filesystem in a rather precarious position. Is Oracle going to put up a fight or will it be a case of no profit means no gain?

Despite the great wedding celebrations and fanfare which will inevitably occur during the honeymoon period, I will sadly shed a tear as a fair maiden that believed and stood for the virtues of platform independent technologies is to be whisked off into the sunset by another burly corporate man. One can only hope that the aforementioned kiss is one of love and understanding which will rejuvenate Sun and not a fatal kiss of death.

More Stories By Archie Hendryx

SAN, NAS, Back Up / Recovery & Virtualisation Specialist.

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