Oracle puts app server on the grid

Oracle Corp. is adding grid computing capabilities to a new version of its application server software, part of a broader effort to revamp its entire product line around the “utility” computing model. Analysts say the goal is worthy but don’t see customers rushing to build grids just yet.

Oracle isn’t saying when it plans to ship the upgrade but it already has a new name for it: Application Server 10g. In the same way it rebranded its products 9i a few years ago to help it capitalize on the frenzy around Internet computing, so its application server and database will both be branded with the “g” suffix, suggesting a commitment to grid computing in the years ahead.

“We’re at a crossroads for a major generational shift for Oracle’s infrastructure software,” said John Magee, Oracle’s vice president for application server marketing. “What we’re really looking to do now is commercialize grid technology for our customers.”

The company will provide details about its 10g products at its OracleWorld conference in San Francisco next month, Magee said. It will also discuss grid-related updates to its development tools and to its database management product, Oracle Enterprise Manager, which appears set to play a key role in the effort.

Grid computing promises to let businesses treat groups of servers and storage equipment as if they were a single large machine, and to assign computing resources to applications on an as-needed basis. Proponents, which also include IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., say it will help businesses save money by allowing them to use computing resources more efficiently. Instead of having to predict how much capacity they’ll need to run their applications — and perhaps buying too much — an IT department should be able to reassign resources from elsewhere in a network when they are required.

The technology also promises improved reliability. Like clustering, grid computing allows an application to switch over to different hardware if the servers it is running on go down. But unlike clustering, in which applications fail over to a fixed, predetermined group of servers, grid computing can assign resources from anywhere in a network on an ad hoc basis.

“It’s a bit like clustering on steroids,” said Mike Gilpin, a research fellow with analyst company Forrester Research Inc.

But if clusters are hard to set up and manage, grid computing can be even more complex, and it’s unclear how quickly customers will take to the new model.

“I think the caveat of any clustered or grid configuration is the complexity. Oracle has to make that complexity invisible to the end user, and if they don’t do that effectively then organizations aren’t going to move towards this, even if they get more hardware utilization,” said Mark Shainman, a senior analyst at Meta Group Inc., in Stanford, Conn.

Standards for grid computing, which help ensure that products from different vendors interoperate, are still in their infancy, Gilpin noted, which could further hamper adoption.

“The goal of increasing the reliability of applications by grid-enabling them is a worthy one. However, I think the amount of demand from customers for anything grid-related is quite limited right now,” Gilpin said.

Management and monitoring also need to be enhanced to help businesses get predictable levels of service from their grids, and security functions for grid environments must also be added, Oracle’s Magee said.

Oracle says it will address these concerns by delivering products that are “grid-ready,” reducing the work required to get a grid up and running. The 10g application server will have new provisioning features, for example, making it easier to shift software configurations from one group of servers to another, Magee said.

It will also allow businesses to monitor the performance of applications and services from the end user, through the firewall and routers and back to the database, he said. Much of that capability will be provided in conjunction with new features in Enterprise Manager that will be described at OracleWorld next month, he said.

While Oracle isn’t discussing a timeframe or pricing for its 10g products, the database is likely to ship towards the end of the first half of next year, Shainman said. “Most customers don’t migrate to a new version until about a year after it’s released,” he noted.

Oracle says it’s working with hardware and software partners on its grid efforts and will adhere to the evolving grid standards, but Magee stopped short of saying that Oracle customers won’t be required to use Enterprise Manager to run their Oracle grids. Indeed, he acknowledged that customers will get better results if they use the entire Oracle “stack” of application server, database and tools rather than mixing products from different vendors.

“For example, there are a number of things we can do to optimize security and reliability between the application server and the database. We’ll make those two work together in a way that’s more than the sum of the parts,” he said.

Oracle sees its long term competitors in the area primarily as IBM and Microsoft Corp., in part because those companies can also provide customers with a complete stack for grid computing, Magee said. IBM has already announced grid capabilities for its WebSphere application server, and Microsoft has been articulating a strategy for managing “virtual” pools of computers.

The grid focus is aimed partly at helping Oracle boost its software sales in a market where IT spending remains low, Meta Group’s Shainman said.

“Oracle’s being smart. They realize they have a huge installed base (of database customers) and that the number of new enterprise processor licenses isn’t growing rapidly, and they see an opportunity to sell more software and services to that installed base,” he said.

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