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The curious incident of Oracle and HP-UX on Itanium

What’s next: Maybe a backlash?  

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Comment When I saw the news on Wednesday morning, I thought I had picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue. Or maybe Oracle did. Either way, Oracle’s announcement that it is halting development on HP-UX/Itanium versions of its products touched off a firestorm of phone calls, emails and tweets that just won’t let up.

TPM covered the basics in his excellent story here. Snarky ‘Itanic’ jibes in the headlines aside, HP-UX based Unix systems are in use in a large number of customer data centers, as are IBM Power Unix systems and Oracle SPARC boxes.

These big iron boxes have moved from being the hot new thing a decade ago into more of a mission-critical, mainframe-esque role in mid-sized and large data centers.   What first struck me about the Oracle press release is the claim that “Intel management made it clear that their strategic focus is on their x86 microprocessor and that Itanium was nearing end of life”.

Funny, that directly contradicts what I’ve heard for years directly from Intel and HP. Intel has been more forthcoming about Itanium roadmaps, dates and specifications than at any time in recent memory. Oracle, by contrast, has reinforced its reputation as the North Korea of the server business … only without the charisma and cool Texaco flag.

Why would Intel publicly discuss Itanium roadmaps if it was near end-of-life? Why would it tell Oracle one thing about its plans and HP, industry analysts and the press another? Why would Intel do something that would make them look either deceptive or stupid? Answer: it wouldn’t. Intel doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes.

Gold in them thar processors

Intel is making good money on Itanium processors – more than enough to justify future development. HP is making good money on Integrity (HP-UX + Itanium) systems. Hell, even Oracle is making money on software installed on HP-UX systems. In fact, it is making even more since it tweaked licensing terms to jack up database pricing on HP Unix systems. So if everyone is making bank (including Oracle), why disrupt things now?

This is what Ellison meant when he said that Oracle wants to be the IBM of the 1960s

I think that Oracle simply wants to cut a competitor out of the Unix running and make a play for their installed base. I’ve been in the enterprise server business for more than 15 years now (God, I’m old). For the last five years, I’ve run comprehensive Unix vendor surveys among data center respondents.

They compare the major Unix vendors (HP, IBM and Sun/Oracle) on a wide variety of technical and customer support criteria. In general, IBM and HP tend to beat Sun/Oracle on the majority of questions, which include OS qualities, RAS, performance, and vendor support. (We’ll publish the results from our most recent survey in coming weeks.)

Our survey respondents also indicate that Oracle’s installed base isn’t very comfortable with Oracle’s plans, the way the company communicates those plans, or the support they receive This is quite a change from the Sun days, when most respondents may not have been all that wild about the systems, but they seemed to always like the company and the support it provided.

Let’s say I’m right, and Oracle is playing every card they can to build up its hardware business and drive customers away from HP. Why stop there? How long until it announces it is halting development on IBM AIX versions of its software? Or change the licensing terms to make it even more expensive to deploy on Power vs. any Oracle alternative? Taking it a bit further, is there an Oracle plan to find a way to charge customers a bit more if they run Oracle software on Dell, HP, or IBM x86 hardware? Maybe crank up the support costs a bit higher?

Lock-in

Larry Ellison, photo by Oracle Corporate Communications

To me, this is the reality of what Ellison meant when he said that Oracle wants to be the IBM of the 1960s. Oracle wants to have the incredible margins that IBM enjoyed back then. It wants to have that lock-in that IBM had in the days when there were few alternatives and even fewer standards that would allow customers to easily move from vendor to vendor.

But we don’t live in the 1960s, or even in the 1990s. Back in the 90s and early 00s, Oracle had the power to push server vendors out of the business simply by announcing that it was moving its DB port to a vendor’s OS to second-tier status. If Oracle dropped support of an OS entirely, it was the kiss of death – something that was widely speculated about in vendor and customer communities.

But it’s a different world today. There are a lot of alternatives for HP-UX customers to consider. The current version of IBM’s DB2 database, for example, is fully supported on HP-UX.   There is also a difference in vendor scale today. It used to be easy for Oracle to bully small vendors like Sequent, Pyramid, Data General, NCR and even DEC. They could even intimidate the Unix brands of larger companies such as HP and IBM.

But  today’s systems vendors are larger, more diversified and have more options. Customers today are different too, more sophisticated and not as frightened when it comes to changing systems, databases, or applications. Perhaps most importantly, customers have greater control than ever over their IT choices.

Will Oracle’s gambit work? Will it result in greater system sales? Higher database sales on their own iron? Or will there be a backlash from customers who now see the Ghost of Christmas Future – Oracle tightening the screws and reducing their options until they buckle under and start buying Oracle iron to run Oracle software?

It’s too early to tell. But based on what I’m hearing from clients and what I’ve seen in my own research, I’m betting on backlash. ®

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