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Larry Ellison and a database so fast that customers think it's broken

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 10, 2014
Oracle CEO Larry Ellison boasts his new in-memory technology performs queries and analytics so fast that beta customers believed that their database was broken! This is seen as a good thing.

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Back in the good old, bad old days of the database wars, Michael Stonebraker cheerfully told me in an interview that if users ran Informix’s Universal Server too fast it would fall over. He said:

You can be fast or you can be safe. We offer you the option. In our experience of users, though, they will always choose fast.

There was a ton of PR-spinning that went on after the implications of what had been said filtered through, but as Informix was on borrowed time by this point, it didn’t matter terribly much. Compared to the horrors that were to come once a close look was taken at the order books and the accounts, Stonebraker’s PR faux pas was small potatoes.

But that moment in Paris popped into my head last night as I watched Oracle CEO Larry Ellison boast that his firm’s new in-memory technology performs queries and analytics so fast that some customers in beta testing came to the conclusion that their database was broken:

People, when we ran these tests, they said, 'I don't think it ran. I think it's broken.

I'm serious, they just didn't believe it. When you're used to waiting hours for something and it's just instantaneous, you can't understand.

Unlike Stonebraker’s comment, Ellison’s speedy claims were a core part of a pitch that delivered on promises made back at Oracle OpenWorld last year. So what is Oracle claiming for its new offering?

Some speed boasts:

  • Database queries and analytics running between 100 and 1,000 times faster than in the past.
  • With in-memory technology, Oracle 12c database allows each CPU core to scan 2.5 billion rows per second.
  • The time it takes for the 12c database to process 10 million invoice lines has been shrunk from 244 minutes to 4 seconds.
  • The time it takes to run a financial analysis program is cut from about four hours to roughly 12 seconds
  • A system for keeping track of a company’s transportation network featuring 16,000 drivers and 60 million shipment data records, is slashed to under a second from 16 minutes.
  • A process that had previously taken 58 hours now needs only 13 minutes.

Ellison said:

Enterprises can think differently about how they operate because of these technological changes. They can get information instantaneously now.

All your SQL runs unchanged. There is no loading and unloading of data. It just works.

Catch up

Of course Oracle is in the relatively unusual position of playing catch-up in terms of its database functionality here. SAP is the elephant in the room of course, but there’s also Microsoft’s In-Memory OLTP option for SQL Server 2014 to be considered as well.

Ellison acknowledged that this is a road already travelled, but insisted that Oracle has a different destination in mind to the competition:

Other in-memory databases came out sooner because we had a different set of goals.

Those goals?

  • Speed up analytical applications.
  • Speed up transactional performance.
  • Do both without requiring changes in applications.

Ellison said:

We have a lot of customers that use our database for transaction processing, so we cannot compromise transaction processing.

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To that end, architecturally, Oracle’s taking a ‘best of both worlds’ approach.

The in-memory functionality sticks with Oracle’s row data approach to ensure support for existing applications without changes, but adds a columnar analytical store cached in RAM and duplicated on at least two nodes for redundancy and back-up.

It’s all about evolution now, according to the man who ignited the relational revolution in the first place:

We’re constantly evolving.The technology around our database changed. Memory became cheaper, so it made sense to use more. Flash memory became a way to replace disk memory. Networks became faster.

Ellison didn’t directly mention HANA, but SAP was quick to hit out at the Oracle approach. Irfan Khan, vice president for databases at SAP, wrote in response to Oracle’s announcement:

Thanks for the imitation.

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But the scene is now set for a new front in the database wars and Oracle’s typically confident of its prospects. Oracle vice president of product management Tim Shetler told ZDnet:

One of the reasons we felt it was really important to make this option transparent to the existing applications that run on the Oracle databases was because there are today over 300,000 organisations worldwide that use the Oracle database.

Just because of that, we expect there will be, at least in terms of numbers, a fairly robust take-up of the option when it's available - as opposed to, say, SAP, which really wasn't in the database business until they purchased Sybase. So they don't have a large installed base to start with.

We would expect that within a year we would have more companies running on the Oracle in-memory option perhaps than all the others combined.

My Take

Larry Ellison out in front of an audience talking database tech - it’s kinda comforting in a strange sort of way.

It was a confident, slick pitch by the maestro, albeit lacking certain details, most notably around pricing.

Whether Oracle’s bold prediction for adoption turns out to be true or not, remains to be seen of course.

But after last week’s HANA-fest in Orlando, the in-memory battles will begin in earnest next month.


Disclosure: at time of writing, Oracle and SAP are premium partners of diginomica. 

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