Monthly Archives: October 2011

Inside Oracle Exalytics: Oracle shows its fear of SAP’s in-memory strategy

Oracle released its new in-memory analytics engine, Exalytics, at Oracle Open World 2011 this week. Media has been in a frenzy for the last 4 days and there are already over 1/4 million Google hits for Exalytics. It’s actually interesting though, as to why Oracle would release such a product.

First, Oracle’s Ellison publicly dismissed in-memory computing just 6 months ago. He claimed SAP were on drugs, building out an in-memory database, as referenced in this PC World article:

“Get me the name of their pharmacist,” Ellison said at the time. “I mean, I know a lot about in-memory databases. In fact, we have the leading in-memory database, TimesTen. This is nonsense. There is no in-memory technology anywhere near ready to take the place of a relational database. It’s a complete fantasy on their part.”

Second, Oracle has its Exadata database appliance – which is designed to serve the needs of both online transactional processing, and analytics. With Exadata, you are supposed to have all the appliance you need. Here’s what Ellison said when he unveiled Exadata:

“It is the first database machine that does online transaction processing. All the other machines: Teradata, Netezza etc. are designed just for data warehousing. Oracle Exadata version 1 was designed just for data warehousing. This is the first time a database machine has been able to do both data warehousing and online transaction processing.”

What does an Exalytics appliance look like?

The reason why Oracle were able to produce the Exalytics appliance so quickly is because it’s mostly off-the shelf hardware and software for them:

  • Sun Fire X4470M2 server with 40 cores,  1TB RAM, 6x 600GB SAS drives
  • TimesTen columnar database store (columnar feature is new)
  • Essbase OLAP database (optimised for in-memory)
  • Oracle BI Suite

So Exalytics is nothing new?Not really. It is a bunch of existing Oracle tech, optimised for in-memory, although they don’t say how, apart from the columnar TimesTen database, which will have 5-10x compression compared to the row TimesTen store.However it is neatly packaged up into an appliance which is easily purchased, and one which will probably provide good performance benefits compared to even a regular Exadata appliance.

Why is Oracle afraid of SAP?

Oracle have no need to build this appliance. It’s architecturally complex and they would make more money out of selling the premium Exadata appliance. So why did they? For my money, because Larry wanted to show SAP that he could also build an in-memory analytics appliance in a short period of time.

And this shows for the first time – in the wider market context – that Oracle might be afraid that SAP’s strategy of in-memory computing with its HANA appliance, is the right strategy. Unfortunately Oracle have missed the point.

What is the point and why does Exalytics miss it?

Oracle Exalytics and SAP HANA solve the same high-level business problem today – poorly performing reports. I’d bet if you loaded the same data into them, they are probably quite similar and would provide the same value to the customer. The problem for Oracle is: that’s not the point of SAP HANA.

SAP HANA is a simple and elegant solution that – whilst not quite there today – will, in its roadmap of future versions provide the following:

  • Excellent performance for transactional and reporting systems on the fly
  • Integrated planning engine with no separate store like Essbase
  • Elegantly architected with row and column stores and the benefits of both
  • Generic RDBMS capabilities for all business applications and platforms
Exalytics on the other hand is a bolt-on mixed-technology appliance. For Oracle to really compete with SAP, they need to throw out Exadata and Exalytics and build an in-memory RDBMS appliance that can do what both of those appliances do in one. They have the brains to do so – but will they? We will see.
Update 14/10/2011:
Thanks to David Hull for a couple of clarifications!
1) I don’t make it clear that the Exalytics appliance which is a Sun Fire X4470M2 is an Intel-based server like SAP HANA, rather than using Oracle’s SPARC technology that it acquired from Sun. There is a nice irony in this. I’m actually wondering why they use the Intel tech. It’s cheaper – but most of the components seem to run on SPARC as well.
2) TimesTen is not a columnar store – it’s still a row-based store, but is optimised using columnar compression – which gives some of the compression benefits of a columnar store, but without all the performance benefits. I missed the distinction here.

Oracle & SAP: sticks and stones may break my bones

… but as the saying goes, words will never hurt me. I bet if a SAP HANA or Oracle Exalytics box landed on your foot, it would hurt though.

SAP created a new class of computing this year – it brought together high-end commodity hardware, new software and large amounts of RAM. The era of in-memory computing is on its way. I have, at times, been critical of SAP’s overmarketing of this at a time when the product was not ready for market. Marketing is all about making products easy to sell, and hype extends the sales cycle. That said, I also believe that in time, SAP HANA will be seen as an inflection point in computing. It may or may not be the dominant supplier, but it got there with the right appliance at the right time.

So it’s no surprise that Oracle entered the market soon afterwards, with its Exalytics in-memory appliance. On the face of it, SAP HANA and Oracle Exalytics are very similar and they definitely reach out to the same market – those people who want mid-volume (1-5TB of traditional data mart), extremely high performing, complex analytics.

What is also clear when you get into the detail, is that SAP have architected something new and very interesting – HANA has the potential to be an application platform, database and appliance that underpins all of SAP’s enterprise software, and also potentially software from other vendors.

By contrast Oracle Exadata is (today) a patchwork quilt of existing software, shoehorned into an in-memory appliance. Oracle has its work cut out for it building out a more cohesive and simple in-memory appliance. But note that Oracle does have an existing stable and mature RDBMS. SAP does not, and it must go through that product maturity cycle with HANA.

So why the willy waving?

With this in mind, why on earth have SAP reacted the way they did, to the Oracle news. It’s traditional for Hasso Plattner and Larry Ellison to abuse each other a bit (Hasso famously mooned Larry), and it’s definitely business-as-usual for Oracle to name call in public, like Hurd and Ellison recently. But remember Plattner is not a SAP employee and can do whatever he wants.

Normally however SAP are more demure. Not so this week, and it all kicked off with Bob Evans (a paid journalist by SAP) who wrote on Forbes: Oracle President Safra Catz Suffers SAP Hallucinations. This stuff reads like wartime propaganda. Check it for yourself. That was Monday and Bob is a journalist by trade and prone to sensationalism – check some of his other posts. I can forgive him for his content because he produces what he’s told to do.

But then came Tuesday, and Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Becher and Head of Technology and Innovation Platform Marketing for SAP Aiaz Kazi took centre stage. They put the simple message out there with his Forbes post: Why SAP HANA is a Better Choice than Oracle Exalytics. This piece has the frosted gilt of Bob Evans’ hand, and I’m guessing he edited it.

Customer-centric: In attempting a retro-IBM style move with their hardware infatuation, Oracle has forgotten the customer. I watched hours of videos and read litanies of blogs but I can’t find answers to simple questions.

Really SAP shouldn’t be throwing stones in glass houses – SAP HANA information can be hard to find, and it is by no means a market-perfect solution. But again I can forgive Jonathan and Aiaz – I think they got a bit carried away with their story, and the editing pen made it sensationalist.

And then Wednesday came. President and Corporate Officer, Global Solutions at SAP, Sanjay Poonen, logged into Forbes and posted his tuppence worth: Oracle’s Exalytics: “Old Wine in New Wineskins”. The propaganda continues with:

CIOs, the choice is yours: sign up for Oracle’s Exa parade and its never-ending set of hardware purchases, licenses and maintenance, and it will increasingly lock-in control over you and your future, with antiquated architectures.

I don’t really know what to say to this.

Why does SAP appear to be threatened by Oracle Exalytics?

So why? Why the parade, the fluffing of feathers and the sharpening of claws? Why the impromptu video of CTO and board member Vishal Sikka? Why?

The only clear reason appears to be investors and share prices. If the market thinks that SAP HANA can be replicated by Oracle in 10 short months then they might think that SAP HANA isn’t so special after-all and the financial community might reduce their expectations of SAP’s stock.

The problem is that I talk to a number of these analysts on a quarterly basis and they are very smart people. They take advice from a number of people in the technology community and crunch numbers for a living. And they live in large-enterprise politics and can see straight through propaganda.

A parting thought

What’s more, they will understand that SAP HANA is (currently) the right way to architect in-memory computing and Oracle Exalytics is not. They will also understand that this is the first battle and the war for dominance in this space has only just started.

And if you’re listening SAP right now – throw away Thursday and Friday’s blogs (who next, McDermott?) and focus on creating clarity of vision of the go-to-market proposition. Because that, is what CIOs buy.


Based on further conversations with Enterprise IT experts, I can confirm another dimension that I hadn’t thought of. The mass of SAP rhetoric has sent parts of industry into a temporary panic. Why, they muse, is SAP so bothered about this? There must be something very damaging in Oracle’s announcement and SAP must be running around to cover it up?

Probably not what the execs at SAP were looking to achieve, unfortunately. By the way those experts seem to have gotten to the same conclusion that we discuss here: Exalogic is not so damaging to SAP, and the reaction is therefore bizarre.

Update 7th October 2011

This post seems to have caused some upset. I thought it was reasonably objective (and it is certainly not my intention to upset people) but this is the response I got from board member Vishal Sikka:

@vsikka: @MatthiasGerisch @applebyj so tons of people ask you to respond, you do, as humbly as possible and without bs, and that’s propaganda?  Wtf.

Vishal’s response is understandable to some degree, given that his YouTube video is indeed candid and quite objective. But again the point I was trying to make was in two dimensions:

1) Why criticise your competitors at all? I work for a SAP Systems Integrator and you don’t see me publicly criticising competitors like Accenture, IBM or Deloitte. Customers will buy my organisation’s services based on the quality of our value proposition alone. Criticising my competitors is not useful and customers are usually distrustful of people that do this.

2) SAP’s board is responsible for its overall outward response.  It doesn’t matter about an individual response – it is the overall picture of articles, interviews and blogs that is painted, including those people that write them. And it is this picture – not an individual video – that appears to be propaganda in this case.

And if SAP’s board isn’t happy with its overall media response, it needs to do something about it.

P.S.: I joked that Thursday’s post on Forbes would be by McDermott. Amusingly, it is, although it is by Tim Clark and entitled SAP’s Bill McDermott: “It Doesn’t Take Two Years to Create a Good Strategy”. Not a dig in Oracle in sight. Phew.

SAP HANA vs Oracle Exalytics – the game is on

So Oracle announced Exalytics yesterday and I’ve spent much of today thinking about it in the back of my mind whilst I did my day job. It’s about the most interesting announcement of the tech world this year and it’s worth discussing why.

What is Oracle Exalytics?

Well it’s a bit like SAP HANA. It’s a big (relatively) commodity piece of hardware with 40 Intel cores and 1TB of main memory. It can store a claimed 5-10TB of compressed analytics data, but beware of false compression claims. On this, you can perform high-speed analytics on medium-size datasets.

Exalytics is a technology mashup of its TimesTen in-memory database technology, BI stack and Essbase OLAP engine. This means that it’s not anything new, but rather existing technology repackaged into an appliance. Not necessarily a bad thing, because it means it should just work.

How does it compare to SAP HANA?

Compared to SAP HANA 1.0 SP02, Oracle Exalytics is almost exactly the same. It is a combination of Hardware and Software packaged into an appliance. The major difference is that Oracle build the whole stack so you can buy an Exalytics appliance directly from Oracle.

However it is only available in one size: 1TB, which is a strength and a weakness. First, SAP can sell anything from a 64GB license (with a minimum 128GB appliance), which at list price is less than €200,000 – all the way up to a monster 4TB appliance in partnership with IBM (and probably other hardware partners, later in the year).

Oracle validate SAP’s in-memory strategy

That’s what’s interesting here: Oracle is validating that SAP has got it right. Larry Ellison usually goes his own way and it is a very interesting concession to SAP’s strategy that Oracle are following suit.

Does SAP have first mover advantage?

In the analytics game – not really. SAP HANA and Oracle Exalytics are likely to be roughly as mature as each other and Oracle has a simpler sales-cycle because it is a one-stop-shop. This means that the 6 months early mover advantage that SAP has is not that relevant in terms of analytics.

However that’s not the point, because SAP HANA may be an analytics appliance today in its SAP HANA 1.0 SP02 guise – but it becomes so much more when SAP release SAP HANA 1.0 SP03 to market, which is purported to be in early November 2011. When this happens, HANA is no longer just a bolt-on analytics appliance, but also a full RDBMS for SAP NetWeaver BW systems.


For my money, Oracle Exalytics is just the second move of a chess game. Black Pawn to 2.d5. What comes next is what will be really interesting. Because SAP HANA has a fantastic roadmap that could position it as the RDBMS of choice for Enterprise IT – for SAP’s Business Suite software but also for so much more.

The question is, what does Oracle have up its sleeve to turn its RDBMS strategy into something that can compete with SAP? A collection of technologies will not be enough in years to come – it will have to be put into a cohesive strategy for both on-premise and cloud solutions. Currently SAP appears to have the upper hand in terms of long-term strategy, but Oracle should not be underestimated.


I’ve been reading some more and it looks nebulously like Exalytics can do both failover and scale-out – but the details in the solution brief are nebulous. Oracle also talks about Apps, which suggests it is trying to compete with SAP, perhaps with a future range of Oracle Exalytics Apps.

It’s also worth noting that Exadata and Exalytics appliances use an Infiniband 40GB/sec connection to connect each other, which may resolve some of the problems SAP is having around performance of scale-out solutions.