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Oracle names self virtualization king

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If Oracle and Sun Microsystems have anything in common - and as the poster children for Silicon Valley's IT upstarts, they have much in common - it is that they are not afraid to say they have the best technology and no one can touch them. That, in a nutshell, was what Oracle's top techies spent hours trying to convince the world in a webcast presentation going over the myriad server and desktop virtualization products that come from the merged Oracle and Sun.

There wasn't a lot of news in the four hour presentation, but there was plenty of talk and that shows how Oracle plans to pitch its virtualization products against competitors. "Oracle's virtualization delivers more value that VMware," the opening screen of the webcast declares, with familiar the - "Oracle. Complete." - theme woven in.

"I don't think anyone is even close to what Oracle provides," declared Ed Screven, chief corporate architect at Oracle. Screven is correct in saying that most server virtualization products have the management of applications as a separate thing and they focus merely on managing the virtualization operating systems and clusters of physical servers to run the hypervisors that support them. With the combination of Oracle VM for x64 (Oracle's Xen) and Sparc (Sun's LDoms) and OpsCenter (from Sun), and Oracle Enterprise Manager (which manages Oracle middleware and applications), Oracle can, did, and will continue to make a very credible argument that all you need to run virtualized Oracle application on Oracle iron is Oracle's virtualization.

But sells the hodge-podge collection of server virtualization being peddled by its systems competitors way short. IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu, Dell, and every other server maker have an equally incompatible mess of server virtualization products. And in that regard, they are most certainly not only close to what Oracle provides, but they exceed Oracle. (How many different hypervisors do IBM and HP support? All but a few that are available only on hardware they do not sell is the answer).

This is not necessarily a good thing, nor is it necessarily easy or cheap for Oracle to have to support so many different virtualization technologies on three classes of servers - x64 boxes made by Oracle and others, Sparc T Series machines made by Oracle, and Sparc M series made by Fujitsu.

But when you buy a collection of incompatible systems, as Oracle has done, you are going to necessarily end up with an incompatible set of hardware partitions, hypervisors, and virtual private servers. The trick - and one that Oracle surely knows how to master as it has done in the past with applications and middleware - is to mask the differences as much as possible. As many of us have said for a long time now, server virtualization has to evolve to the point where you don't know or care how it is being done so long as it is being done. What IT shops want is to have more fluid and malleable systems, and they want to have the tools to manage them without having to get down and putting it together with nuts and bolts.

"Virtualization is not a goal, it is a means to a goal," Screven said. And that goal, according to Oracle and anyone else you talk to about cloudy infrastructure these days, is to make the entire stack - servers and storage, networking, operating systems, middleware, and applications - easier to deploy, manage, and support.

To help customers speed up this process, Oracle has a tool called Virtual Assembly Builder, which creates a set of template for Oracle applications, such as its Siebel customer relationship management software, or systems software such as its Fusion middleware or 11g database, and allows them to be quickly deployed across Oracle VM hypervisors. The templates are preconfigured and preintegrated by Oracle and include all the systems software to run the application, or customers can use the Virtual Assembly Builder to create their own gold image stacks for deployment. This Virtual Assembly Builder approach, said Screven, can save customers anywhere from days to weeks of installation and configuration time.

And the tool is not limited to just creating a single virtual appliance with one bit of software running on top of a single virtual machine. Virtual Assembly Builder can manage and deploy multi-tier software stacks on multiple VMs that are interconnected, just like physical hardware used to be as databases, middleware, and apps were deployed by hand on multiple servers. This includes Oracle 11g Real Application Clusters, where nodes can be deployed virtually inside of Oracle VM slices and linked just like physical servers, but gain the fast deployment, recovery, and live migration of virtual machines.

Oracle also thinks it can give customers an edge in terms of performance and security if they stick to its virtualization stack, according to Screven. As an example, Screven held out the Oracle JRockit Virtual Edition implementation of the Java Enterprise Edition Virtual Machine, which runs atop the Oracle VM hypervisor for x64 machines (and probably soon Sparc iron). By running JRockit right on the hypervisor, the JVM runs faster than other virtualized JVMs, which have an operating system layer as well. And, says Screven, the JRockit Virtual Edition also has fewer "attack surfaces" for hackers to bang against and is therefore inherently more secure.

There are other performance tweaks that Oracle can bring to bear. John Fowler, executive vice president of Oracle's Systems and Storage group, said that virtualized environments put a lot of stress on servers and storage, but the integrated 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports on its Sun Blade 6000 x64 blades allows blades to link directly to the outside world without managed switches in the middle - and in a way that is virtualized so VMs can hop around a network of machines and carry their MAC addresses with them. Using this integrated 10 Gigabit Ethernet support, Fowler said that live migration of Oracle VM server instances are sped up by about 40 per cent and that the networking chip on the blades was able to deliver about 99 percent of 10 Gigabit line speed on the Oracle Enterprise Linux 5 virtual machine.

Screven said that there is one team that does development for Oracle Enterprise Linux and Oracle VM, not two different teams, and they are maniacally focused on performance. Thanks to paravirtualization for drivers for both Linux and Windows on Oracle VM, Screven says that the overhead imposed by the Oracle VM implementation of the Xen hypervisor can be as low as 5 per cent of CPU capacity, while other hypervisors are burning as much as 20 per cent of CPU.

"Going from 5 per cent to 15 per cent means another server you cannot consolidate, and that means something to customers," said Screven.

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