Users: Oracle Exadata's speed comes with a cost

Exadata delivers the processing speed Oracle has touted, but at high expense and with sizable technical requirements, users say

Few Oracle products in recent years have received as much hype as the Exadata database machine, with the vendor attempting to use it as a standard-bearer for a series of appliances that combine its software with storage, networking equipment and Sun servers.

Oracle has released additional systems since the initial Exadata launch in 2008, including the Big Data Appliance and Exalytics machine, but Exadata is the most mature and best-selling product of the bunch.

Users at the Collaborate conference in Las Vegas who have worked closely with Exadata said this week that it lives up to Oracle's claims of stunning performance over traditional database setups, but the systems' high price tags, as well as the array of skills needed to use them effectively, call for careful planning and consideration on the part of customers.

Credit bureau Experian bought and installed two "half-rack"-sized Exadata machines last year, said Praveer Misra, director of database services and solutions for Experian marketing services.

Exadata's results were stunning, with some reports running 80,000 times faster than before, leaving end-users quite pleased, Misra said. "They were like, this is awesome," Misra said. "Can we please have this as our new baseline?"

About six weeks ago, however, Experian's Exadata systems had a major outage, he said. IT staff were in the process of applying patches to the system's storage cells when a disk went bad, he said.

The bad component notwithstanding, Oracle's Exadata documentation should have warned Experian off from conducting the patch in the manner they chose, Misra said. "If they had mentioned that, the DBAs would have said it was too much of a risk."

Despite that bump, "I would recommend Exadata," Misra said. "My old team was doing nothing but firefighting in the old environment. Now they are all freed up to do new things."

Still, Misra's experience reflects the learning curve Exadata administrators face.

Vinod Haval vice president of infrastructure standards and governance at Bank of America, has been evangelizing the concept of a "DMA" or database machine administrator, as the ideal role for a lead on an Exadata project.

In Haval's view, this person is "60 percent Oracle RAC [Real Application Clusters] DBA, 20 percent storage administrator, 15 percent system administrator and 5 percent miscellaneous," he said during a panel talk this week at Collaborate.

"Any one of them can become a DMA but a DBA has a better shot," he added. It doesn't make sense to create a dedicated role for a DMA if your company only has one or two Exadata machines, but if you have seven or eight, it starts to makes sense, according to panelists.

Bank of America is one of Exadata's higher-profile initial customers. The bank applies a stringent set of guidelines to any new technology under consideration for its use, Haval said.

Some "16 to 17 deliverables" are required, covering areas such as IT staffers' skillsets, organizational layouts and incident management, before something new can be put into production, and the same rules applied to Exadata, according to Haval.

A number of audience members at the panel session brought up Exadata's sizable price tag, which can easily run into the millions of dollars once software license fees are added to the hardware.

It's important, however, for customers to "define what you mean by affordable," said panelist Sridhar Avantsa, associate practice director with systems integrator Rolta.

First, many Exadata sales so far are for quarter-rack systems, Avantsa said. Those currently list for US$330,000 for the hardware.

Second, customers may find that they can condense many existing databases down to "a single source of truth" running on the Exadata box and even end up with excess capacity once that's done, allowing them to save on licensing and storage, he said.

Haval offered a measured response to the affordability question.

"Is Exadata expensive? Yes, there's no doubt that it is," he said. "But fit it to the purpose. Find out exactly how it fits, then build the business case."

That business case's success or failure is "65 percent sensitive to the storage," Haval said. It's crucial that customers take advantage of Exadata's storage features, particularly the hybrid columnar compression, according to Haval.

Panelists also discussed the Exadata hardware and mixed messages customers have received over whether components in older versions can be swapped for newer ones in order to maintain performance.

Overall, not much can be done to hold off the inevitable, Avantsa said. "Bottom line, any hardware, at the end of five years, it's a paperweight."

Collaborate is jointly sponsored by three independent Oracle user groups.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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