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IT shops resist Oracle VM push

Oracle's leadership wants to steer customers toward its Xen-based hypervisor, but users are forging their own path with VMware's vSphere.

Oracle Corp. intends to take over the infrastructure for its database applications, from the hypervisor on down -- but users aren't following the game plan.

Users like Indiana University are insisting on their choice of hypervisor, regardless of Oracle's marketing. The school has 170 instances of Oracle's databases, representing between 20 and 25 terabytes of data and performing an estimated 200,000 transactions per day. The data center that houses them serves eight campus locations; the databases support about 35 different applications. All but three critical systems have been ported from virtualized AIX servers running on RISC hardware to Dell x86 servers running vSphere on a Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 5, and the university's director for enterprise infrastructure Rob Lowden says it will stay that way for the forseeable future.

According to Dan Young, Indiana's manager of enterprise database administration, Oracle support has never requested the university replicate problems on physical hardware for troubleshooting -- a condition that is explicitly set forth in Oracle's support policy. "If we have to, we will," said Young. "Oracle's not the first one to put out the scare that 'you'll be required to do that before we'll support you.'" Young said the university doesn't hide the virtualization platform, but "as a rule, we don't make it our first talking point" on the phone with support.

Buying the hypervisor, but not the whole enchilada
Another user whose shop was already dominated by Oracle applications has found a cost advantage with Oracle VM, but still isn't buying into Oracle's soup-to-nuts strategy. Michael Poole, assistant vice president and CTO for the University of Massachusetts President's Office in Worcester, Mass., said Oracle VM, based on the open source Xen hypervisor, costs substantially less than VMware's vSphere. For approximately 100 servers that were part of his initial evaluation, he estimated that vSphere's licensing costs at $350,000, plus $70,000 in annual maintenance and $120,000 per year for RHEL support. Oracle Enterprise Linux running Oracle VM costs approximately $30,000 for support per year.

UMass has almost finished the migration of nearly 1,000 operating system instances in its multi-data center environment to Oracle VM, making it one of the largest Oracle VM deployments in the world. The applications that UMass is virtualizing on Oracle VM include the Oracle 11g database, PeopleSoft, WebLogix, Oracle Identity Management, and Windows applications -- such as SQL Server and SharePoint.

Poole acknowledged Oracle VM lags behind other hypervisors in features like memory oversubscription, for example, and he'd like Oracle's Enterprise Manager to monitor physical CPU and memory on virtual servers. But "as a huge Oracle shop, we're creating so much [in] savings with the licensing that not squeezing more [consolidation] out of our environment isn't a big deal."

But Poole draws the line at sourcing server, networking and storage hardware from Oracle/Sun, which Oracle is pushing with products such as Exadata. Oracle VM appealed to Poole because it began as the open-source Xen hypervisor, but a hardware stack seems loaded with more potential for proprietary lock-in.

Despite Oracle RAC/vSphere stumbling blocks, users should forge ahead
For some enterprises, there are technical integration issues between Oracle RAC and VMware that prevent the deployment of Oracle databases on vSphere in production, despite a desire to do so. Wayne Gateman, an area coordinator of virtualization for a Fortune 15 company in the medical distribution and software field, said his company runs Oracle databases on VMware Virtual Infrastructure 3.5 in a test/dev environment, with plans to move to vSphere soon.

VSphere isn't supported in Oracle environments, Gateman says, because VMware doesn't support vMotioning virtual machines attached to a RAC cluster's shared SCSI bus in Raw Device Mapping (RDM) mode. If Gateman places a physical RAC server into maintenance mode, he can't move its Oracle VMs to another RAC cluster node without shutting them down, which violates production service-level agreements.

But Gateman would rather wait for that support in vSphere than use a separate product for virtualizing Oracle applications. "Some places are already so Oracle-centric that they don't see anything else," he said. "I don't see why I should buy a separate stack."

Dave Welch, chief technology officer at House of Brick, an Omaha, Neb.-based Oracle consultancy, says it's time for users to reexamine the benefits of running Oracle applications, including RAC, on vSphere -- regardless of the shared SCSI bus issue. Welch suggests that users in Gateman's position use Oracle Recovery Manager to replicate the machine to a vSphere instance, then use VMware's cloning tools to move it around non-disruptively.

Welch also points out that virtualizing Oracle databases using a failover mechanism like VMware's Site Recovery Manager (SRM) can free users from having to match hardware at primary and secondary sites before performing a failover. SRM uses existing array-based replication tools, eliminating the need for Oracle's expensive Data Guard application to replicate between physical servers.

Welch and the Independent Oracle Users Group (IOUG) have put public pressure on Oracle to "come to the table" on its hypervisor support policies. "We've been trying to evoke the issues Oracle warns about…they've been paper tigers for two years. People want to use the platform of their choice."

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