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Oracle support issues overshadow Solaris virtualization milestone

Alex Barrett

News that Oracle VM for Sparc 2.1 includes live migration was met with muted enthusiasm by at least one longtime Sparc Solaris user, who said his expectations are dampened by past painful interactions with Oracle.

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Oracle VM for Sparc, previously known as Solaris Logical Domains (LDoms), is a server virtualization and partitioning feature for select Sun servers that exploits the multi-threading (CMT) feature of UltraSparc chips. With Oracle VM for Sparc 2.1, announced last week, administrators running a workload in an LDom can move it to another host without incurring downtime, much in the same way as VMware VMotion or Live Application Mobility in IBM AIX 6.1.

In theory, that feature should ease routine maintenance or server upgrades, said a database administrator with defense contractor Northrup Grumman. His department runs Oracle Database on all-Sparc hardware.

“It is potentially better than [live migration] on VMware or Hyper-V because of the way the hypervisor is visible to the kernel,” the database administrator said. In x86 virtualization, “the hypervisor has to fool the kernel,” he said.

Oracle/Sun shops face dark support clouds
However, the administrator anticipated that upgrading systems to support the new feature will be a pain.

“I just installed Oracle Secure Backup and it was kind of a nightmare,” he said. Because Oracle VM for Sparc involves the operating system, “I seriously doubt it’s going to be smooth.”

And if things go poorly, he has little confidence in Oracle’s support staff.

“Their support has slipped badly,” he said. In the past, “you could count on talking to someone smarter than you, but now that’s not the case at all.” These days, the admin will comb Google for answers before opening a trouble ticket.

Further irking the administrator, Oracle refused to let him download patches, and Oracle’s support website leaves much to be desired, he said, although he used much more colorful language.

Despite all these complaints, the department remains committed to Sparc, the administrator said.

Compared with Linux on x86, there’s no doubt that Solaris on Sparc is better, he said. “I’m all for it because it’s rock-solid,” he said. At the same time, the department uses several features of the Oracle database that further lock it into the platform.

Too little, too late -- or just enough, just in time?
Other Sun shops have already moved on to other technologies. “The [live migration] feature sounds exciting, but I don't currently use Sparc systems and haven't used LDoms in several years, so I can't really comment,” said one former Solaris admin. 

Many legacy Sun Solaris/Sparc shops started reevaluating their platform a few years back as Sun Microsystems struggled. Oracle’s acquisition of the company last year may have accelerated these defections.

 “I'm seeing a lot of people dropping Solaris and Sun/Oracle hardware completely due to Oracle's draconian policies and its strong-arm tactics in dealing with the end-user and developer communities,” said Bill Bradford, a systems admin for a Houston-based energy services firm and owner of Sunhelp.org, via email. “Their ‘We're Oracle, you'll pay what we want, we don't have to care’ attitude is still prevalent as far as I've seen. Enough of that, and companies will take their toys and play in a different sandbox.”

Tales like this aside, Oracle’s sales appear to holding up. In 2010, the combined Oracle/Sun held 22.9% of the total Unix market, in third place behind IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co., according to IDC. In the first quarter or 2011, Oracle’s share actually increased a bit to 23.7%, maintaining its third-place position.

This new live migration may help Oracle shore up that legacy customer base, said Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, even if “it’s not something that anyone is going to switch for.”

The Northrup Grumman administrator concurred. His department has a fleet of older T5120 servers that it plans to upgrade to new T3 systems. Moving to the latest version of Oracle VM for Sparc beforehand would simplify future system upgrades, he said.

Beyond that, Olds said he doubted many Sun shops would use live migration as extensively as that feature is used in x86 circles. It is his impression that AIX shops that are able to perform live migration don’t do it much because they don’t have the need, and because the workloads they run are too important to risk.  

Oracle VM for Sparc is available at no charge for servers based on Sparc T3, UltraSparc T2 Plus and UltraSparc T2 processors. The 2.1 release also claims improved CPU Dynamic Resource Management that enables a higher priority guest domain to take CPUs away from a lower priority domain. Other new features include DTrace enablement that exposes DTrace probes as part of the LDom framework; and improved allocation and deallocation of CPUs and crypto units, the company said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at abarrett@techtarget.com, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.


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