Oracle and Sun 101

Customers benefit from single vendor for servers, storage, and software.

by Alan Joch, August 2010

If you’re a business manager who lies awake at night obsessing over how to cut costs or devise new revenue opportunities, you may know Sun Microsystems more by reputation than by direct experience.

You may know, for example, that for almost 30 years Sun’s expert R&D department has produced important technological innovations such as its signature Sun SPARC microprocessors and the Solaris Operating System, which together power high-speed computing applications in some of the world’s most demanding computing environments. Or that Sun’s high-performance hard-disk and tape libraries protect intellectual property for thousands of top corporations and government agencies. And then there’s Java, the development environment that’s synonymous with the explosive growth of Web applications.

Which is all well and good, but what does Oracle’s acquisition of Sun mean for bedrock business challenges, such as improving customer service, extracting efficiencies from manufacturing lines, or launching a new retail product ahead of the competition?

The short answer is that the merger has wide implications for business executives who can now address their core challenges with comprehensive and tightly integrated solutions from a single vendor. “As a combined company, we’re able to do the additional engineering, testing, and product development not only to create new features and capabilities but to lower the cost of ownership associated with deploying systems,” says John Fowler, executive vice president of systems at Oracle and a 19-year Sun veteran.

Comprehensive Portfolio
Cutting costs while improving business operations has always been the holy grail for IT managers, but it has become even more important in an environment where many organizations deferred or even canceled new IT projects to control expenses. Even as economic conditions are starting to improve, many managers are clinging to their frugal ways by investing carefully to get the most value from every dollar they spend for hardware, software, and services. The breadth and depth of the combined Oracle and Sun portfolio can help with a mix-and-match approach to enterprise hardware and software.

The current Sun hardware lineup already offers significant benefits that reduce costs and improve business efficiency. Sun SPARC Enterprise Servers deliver up to four times the performance of competitive servers for as little as one-fifth the cost. Sun x86 servers run on commodity-priced Intel or AMD processors and power a range of operating systems, from Oracle Solaris and Microsoft Windows to Oracle Enterprise Linux and open source Linux. Sun Storage 7000 Unified Storage Systems can cut costs as much as 75 percent compared to traditional storage solutions. Sun StorageTek tape libraries, drives, virtualization technology, and device-management software can scale to more than 70 petabytes—helping businesses face the surging enterprise-data tidal wave.

When Sun’s portfolio is combined with Oracle’s leading enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management (CRM) software, Oracle Database, and Oracle Fusion Middleware technologies, businesses now have access to integrated, pretested software and hardware combinations that they can launch quickly to keep implementation costs to a minimum. The combination of Oracle and Sun engineers under one roof also yields massive investments in R&D devoted to software and hardware solutions focused on meeting the business needs of enterprises. “We are going to see a steady stream of technology improvements, all designed to lower costs and improve the effectiveness of customer operations,” Fowler predicts.

A well-defined integration strategy is nothing new for Oracle. The Oracle stack advantage integrates Oracle E-Business Suite and Oracle’s Siebel, PeopleSoft, and JD Edwards software with Oracle Database and grid infrastructure. In addition, the Oracle Exadata database machine is an appliance made with Oracle and Sun components to create what has been benchmarked as the world’s fastest machine for both data warehousing and online transaction processing. Both of these preintegrated offerings reduce implementation costs and tune the inner workings of the components for optimum performance. But “prebuilt” doesn’t mean vanilla solutions. Fowler points to the Oracle Exadata appliance’s Oracle Database 11g Release 2 foundation, the latest version of the most popular enterprise database in the world. “This is definitely not a niche play,” says Fowler. He adds that other turnkey solutions are now in the works.

StubHub’s Strategy
StubHub, the world’s largest ticket marketplace, is a beneficiary of the close relationship that Oracle and Sun enjoyed even before the merger. Software and hardware combinations from the two companies are helping StubHub’s IT staff address one of its largest business challenges—the unpredictable variability of StubHub’s transaction volumes.

StubHub’s current partners include the New York Yankees, Washington Redskins, University of Southern California, and nearly 60 other professional and collegiate sports organizations, as well as music artists and media outlets including ESPN and AOL. Since the company’s inception in 2000, they have led the secondary ticketing space, and by 2005 business had grown fast enough that the company’s transaction systems were struggling to meet the huge spikes that naturally resulted during peak ticket demand. For example, ticket activity for Major League Baseball games is busiest during the postseason, particularly the World Series. Depending on how each series progresses, demand can certainly ebb and flow. Concerts are another example, as tour announcements are often unpredictable and can lead to similar variability.

Response times had been especially vexing for StubHub with the old system. The company’s temporary fix had been to filter out any traffic going to the database that wasn’t directly associated with actual ticket transactions. This lightened the load but added delays to system updates, so customers often weren’t seeing the latest changes to ticket prices or availabilities.

So StubHub managers decided to act. They upgraded the firm’s implementation of Oracle9i Database running on commodity servers. In its place, StubHub technologists installed Oracle Database 10g and high-end Sun SPARC Enterprise M5000 servers packed with memory. “I had my pick of anything I wanted for the upgrade and decided that Sun is one of the best platforms out there for critical systems,” says William Dougherty, StubHub’s director of site operations. “We felt that Sun had the best solution in terms of running Oracle Database in a high-transactional environment.”

The close ties between Oracle and Sun even premerger meant StubHub avoided the implementation delays and costs associated with wiring software and hardware systems together. The engineering staff at Sun Labs helped demonstrate the effectiveness of a combined Oracle and Sun environment. “When we were deciding what platform to go to, we didn’t have a lot of time to test eight different scenarios ourselves,” Dougherty recalls. “So we laid out our workload, and [the Sun Labs staff] guided us on how we could get the most performance for our money,” Dougherty says.

Sun Labs experts offered specific details about how to provision system components, down to the storage and network connectors, for optimum speeds. With that information, Dougherty knew the configuration would work because he had the numbers to back it up. He also knew how the system was designed to minimize lost transactions and system downtime.

“We were writing a multi-million-dollar check for the upgrade, which was a pretty big risk to take. But the upfront benchmarking gave me confidence that we were getting the right platform,” he explains. “I could go to my boss and say, ‘I know this will work, and here are the numbers.’”

Later, when the joint solution was launched and StubHub staffers did their own benchmarking, Dougherty was pleased to find that he was getting higher-than-predicted numbers. “I’m always happy to get better performance than I expected,” he says.

Since the launch, the StubHub systems have continued to produce significant performance gains. The new system can handle 47,000 database transactions per second per node, a 52-fold increase in volume. Similarly, the average response time per transaction (0.27 milliseconds) is nearly 72 times faster.

In business terms, this means the StubHub site is powerful enough to display instant updates. “That makes our sellers happy, because their prices and inventory are always up-to-date. And it makes our buyers happy because nobody wants to get to the end of the checkout only to find, oops, that ticket is no longer available. So we’ve seen a noticeable improvement in both buyer and seller satisfaction,” says Dougherty.

“This upgrade project was all about scalability and growth, and that’s what we’ve achieved. Our site traffic has more than doubled in the past 18 months. Without the new Sun platform, we would not be able to handle our high volume of site traffic.”

StubHub executives are now taking the next step. They’re implementing Siebel CRM for use by the call center reps and pairing the software with Sun SPARC Enterprise T5240 and T5140 hardware to run the database, application servers, and Web servers. The range of choice in Oracle’s Sun portfolio allows Dougherty to match the right size servers to specialized implementations. “With the Sun platform, I can choose one class of processor and server that optimizes my Oracle workload, for example, and a completely different class of processor and server for my application tier, but still have only one [Oracle] Solaris 10 operating-system code base to support,” he explains. “This flexible architecture uses IT resources efficiently, and its reliability gives us peace of mind.”

Having a wide range of options is something Dougherty expects to see for the foreseeable future.

“I’m buying more servers, and I’ve also bought more Oracle products. The commitment is there for this platform to have long legs,” he says.

Long-Term Commitments
StubHub executives aren’t the only ones taking the long view when it comes to IT commitments. While most managers have planning windows of three to five years for near-term projects and perhaps a decade for long-term initiatives, a decade is nothing for the University of Southern California (USC) Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. Its frame of reference is measured in centuries.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute) in 1994 to document the experiences of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. Between 1994 and 2000, staff of the institute collected, cataloged, and indexed nearly 52,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses, and they have recently begun to expand their archive of videotaped testimony to include testimonies of the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides.

The current video testimony library represents a massive amount of storage space—4 petabytes, or the equivalent of 80 million filing cabinets stuffed with hard-copy pages of text, according to estimates by one online data storage company. Because the institute’s IT staff creates a duplicate copy of each testimony for safekeeping, IT managers are responsible for a total of 8 petabytes of data.

Protecting this vital history required a significant expansion of the underlying storage resources four years ago. The institute chose a StorageTek SL8500 modular library system with StorageTek T10000B tape drives and the Oracle Solaris operating system to store the foundation’s high-quality digital copies.

“The advantage for us with the Sun architecture is that we are able to combine our own software with software from Sun to make sure that the bits aren’t ‘flipping,’” explains Sam Gustman, chief technology officer at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.

“Bit flipping” is an archivist’s worst nightmare. It’s techie slang for the data corruptions that result when hard drives and digital tape cartridges begin to age or are degraded during the process of making copies. At first, the usually small number of inaccurate bits isn’t visually noticeable, but data erosion over long periods can result in the complete loss of some valuable information.

“We decided from the very beginning to have zero tolerance for data loss, so we had to install quite a bit of technology to make sure the bits don’t flip. We want to make sure that a hundred years from now the bits will be the same,” Gustman says.

To do that, he and his staff use Oracle’s Sun Storage Archive Manager technology for data classification and other management tasks. The institute’s IT staff runs the software in tandem with Sun QFS, a file system for consolidating, sharing, and protecting business information.

Although the institute has unique data-protection needs because of the highly specialized nature of its work, a growing number of government regulations and e-discovery rules are making it necessary for organizations across a variety of vertical markets to protect and archive data for years and, in some cases, decades.

Gustman’s planning window is decades longer than that of typical IT executives, but he relies on relationship building to help determine long-term forecasts. “Vendors can be effective at helping clients forecast technological changes,” he says. “Once vendors begin to understand the problems we face, they can make appropriate recommendations. It can lead to very productive relationships.”

For More Information
Sun Labs: Innovation Factory
Oracle and Sun
Sun Servers
The Oracle Stack

 


Alan Joch is a New England-based technology writer.
 
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