When Oracle was going through legal contortions with the European Commission over its pending acquisition of Sun Microsystems in 2009, co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison was asked on several occasions what Oracle was planning to do with Sun’s many hardware businesses.
The questions referred to Sun’s divisions that designed, but didn’t necessarily build, servers, storage arrays, workstations, thin-client terminals, digital tape libraries, processors, networking (yes, Sun made a networking switch) and several other types of IT.
Would Oracle, which has produced only a modicum of hardware in its 33-year history, continue to invest in all those businesses-some of which were leaking red ink?
“I know a lot of people wonder why a highly successful software company like Oracle wants to buy Sun, with all of its lower-margin hardware businesses,” Ellison said at a Churchill Club dinner in San Jose, Calif., in September.
“Well, they’re good businesses. Sun has always had some of the world’s best IT, in software and hardware. There are a lot of very smart people working at Sun. However, they didn’t always execute optimally, as we know.
“Oracle’s stuff [such as middleware, applications and application development tools] all runs on Java. Sun is Java. All of Sun’s products and Oracle’s products work together very well, and we’ve benchmarked some of the fastest performances in the world for big enterprise applications running on Java, SPARC chips, Solaris, Oracle databases. It’s a no-brainer,” Ellison said.
Four months after the Oracle-Sun merger was completed in January, Ellison has kept his word. Oracle is investing in the Sun businesses, hiring a group of additional engineers and swiftly moving into rarified air by becoming an all-purpose IT systems hardware, software and services supplier alongside IBM and Hewlett-Packard.
In fact, Ellison’s argument is that Oracle-plus-Sun offers a more complete menu of data center items than either IBM or HP. But that is a topic for another day.
For now, we will focus on the Oracle storage road map. Not much has been written, if anything, about what Oracle’s plans are for the Sun StorageTek division in the immediate future.
“Storage is a very important business for Oracle, going forward,” Ellison said in September. “StorageTek has built a great reputation for years in its [digital tape] market, and we intend to continue to invest in that part of the business. A lot of people are still using tape every day, and they have to be served. Sun has all those super-fast arrays. There is never going to be a shortage of content to store.”
Oracle also intends to invest a great deal in the development of NAND flash-based storage.
“Flash will turn the storage industry upside down because everything is designed for disks,” former Sun hardware chief and current Oracle Vice President John Fowler said back on Jan. 27.
Thriving Market for High-End Tape Drives
Jim Cates, Oracle’s vice president for development of tape products, started with StorageTek in 1993, moved to Sun in 2005 and now is deeply embedded in Oracle’s “new” tape-drive division.
Cates acknowledged that sales in the digital tape-drive industry have leveled off, although there are still a great many machines in daily production in enterprises around the world.
“As an overall industry that [statement] is true,” Cates told eWEEK. “However, when people say the ‘tape industry,’ they tend to glob it together as one big huge entity, but what you see inside the tape industry is these tiers.
“At the lower end of the tape-drive market, those machines are being fairly rapidly replaced by disk-to-disk or VTL [virtual tape library] systems. These are the 20-cartridge machines, things like that. When you get to the midtier, that’s where you see the LTO [linear tape-open] drives, like our SL3000; that’s been a huge business for us,” Cates said.
“Then, when you look at the high end, with machines like our big enterprise [robot-driven] SL8500 drives, that market is actually very vibrant. This is where we’re seeing new customers.”
Large machines like the StorageTek SL8500 are used, for example, in television stations to archive local and network programs, news footage, commercials, promotional spots, and myriad other video clips. The glass-encased machines hold thousands of tape cartridges; specific tapes can be requested, located, moved to a viewing machine and deployed in minutes-and sometimes seconds.
Spectra Logic, which along with StorageTek is based in Colorado, also makes these enormous video and data storage machines that can cost anywhere from the high six figures to millions of dollars, depending upon deployment requirements and the size of the archive. Spectra Logic told eWEEK recently that business couldn’t be better for it right now.
“We’re talking about thousands of cartridges-some petabyte tape deployments,” Oracle’s Cates said. “We actually have customers interested in doing that now.”
It used to be that tape systems would be attached to dedicated servers, but that is becoming less common, Cates said.
“Instead, we seeing digital tape being consolidated into larger and larger libraries,” he said. “We’re seeing more sharing of tape resources between different parts of enterprises, also.”
Tape, after all, is the greenest form of IT storage because it uses no power while the data is at rest.
Cates said tape is also being used in some areas-such as weather prediction data from satellites, scientific experiments, oil and gas exploration, and health care-as direct-attached storage because the amount of data is so massive and the cost of the media is low compared with disk storage.
With the already well-established digital tape market for archiving and video storage continuing to be a viable business, Oracle sees a continuing, long-term opportunity for maintaining current systems and selling new-generation units as tape quality and storage software improves, Cates said.