Appliances such as microwave ovens, refrigerators, iPods, iPads and TVs are excellent examples of the ease-of-use approach. Bringing the inherently complex world of Oracle databases together with the ease-of-use approach of appliances is challenging. By definition if Oracle Exadata is an appliance then its use should be simple, require relatively little maintenance and like a refrigerator do its job which in this case is run databases at extreme performance levels. If Oracle Exadata isn’t an appliance than what is it?
I found this question quite compelling. Remember that I really grew up in a truly appliance-oriented environment (NetApp). See my first blog posts for more information on my background at NetApp. For this reason, I think I understand what an appliance is pretty well.
At NetApp (and during my early days at NetApp, filers were true appliances by any measure), the appliance concept meant that the device was a toaster: One lever to push down, and one knob to turn. That's it. Plug it in. It works. No step 2.
Cisco really originated the term appliance. The Cisco router replaced the previous form of router, which was typically a UNIX box running routed. As such, the Cisco router pretty much defined the concept of what it means to be a true appliance.
The folks at Cisco made the following argument: We don't need all of the infrastructure of UNIX to do routing. A UNIX box has to do a lot of things. A router really only has to do one thing: Networking. We could make a dramatically simplified device which would be able to do routing really well, at a much lower cost than a UNIX box.
Based upon this concept, an appliance has the following characteristics:
- Extremely simple interface. Should be vastly simpler than doing it the non-appliance way. I.e. a Cisco router is vastly simpler than running routed on a UNIX box.
- A single purpose. The device must be dedicated to doing one thing, but doing it extremely well. Like the way a Cisco router is much better at doing routing than a UNIX box running routed. Or like the way a NetApp filer is much better at doing NFS file serving than a UNIX box running nfsd. You get the idea. By dramatically reducing the number of functions the device performs, you also dramatically reduce the amount of code that must be run on the device. (The original NetApp ONTAP OS was a single-threaded 16 bit OS with only a few 100K of lines of code.) This leads to the next feature of an appliance which is:
- Vastly reduced cost. The original NetApp filer was about a $5,000 device. An equivalent UNIX box used as an NFS file server ran around $50,000. Similar cost differences existed for Cisco routers vs. UNIX boxes as routers.
- Transformative technology. An appliance, if it is truly an appliance, becomes the obvious and natural way to do things. Within a very short period of time after introducing the router, Cisco controlled the router market. They completely displaced the previous way of doing routing. The same thing occurred in file serving with NetApp.
By any reasonable measure, Oracle ExaData fails all of these tests:
- It has as complex an interface as any Oracle database server (which is to say it runs the most complex and expensive piece of software ever written for general purpose use). Certainly not appliance-like.
- An Oracle ExaData rack contains general purpose compute servers, which can be used to run basically anything you want. You can load any Oracle application on it certainly, and no-one would claim that an Oracle database server is an appliance!
- Oracle ExaData is manifestly more expensive than a normal, open-systems database server, and vastly more expensive (assuming intelligent management) than using VMware vSphere for virtualizing Oracle database servers.
- Oracle ExaData is possibly addictive in the Big Blue sense, but it is certainly not a transformative technology in the same way that a Cisco router, iPad, iPhone, or such is.
In terms of an analogy that works, I like to use cars. The two companies in the car business that manufacture appliance cars are Honda and Toyota. The Honda Civic is an appliance car, as is the Toyota Camry. Either one of these cars provides all of the appliance advantages:
- They have a radically simplified interface. Everything about these cars is designed to make them effortless to operate. Because they are so simple, they are also very reliable and efficient.
- They are single purpose vehicles. They get you from point a to point b. That's it. Nothing fancy.
- They are sold at a very reasonable cost, relative to non-appliance vehicles (such as BMW, or Mercedes for example).
- Once you have driven a Honda Civic or Toyota Camry, assuming you are an appliance driver (and there are a lot folks who are appliance drivers), these cars are completely addictive. You simply trade one in for the new model once the old one wears out (and they take a long, long time to wear out). I have known folks who have been driving these cars (in various model years) their entire lives.
Using the car analogy, ExaData is definitely not a Honda or a Toyota. It is not even a BMW or a Mercedes. It is a Ferrari. It is a tricked out, high performance machine. It is very fast, no question. It is *&^% expensive though. And it is very, very complex and demanding to drive.