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Sun hardware shops happy? Not so fast, Oracle!

Several stalwart Sun shops are moving off their beloved Sparc hardware to non-Oracle alternatives.

Many Sun hardware shops are not at all happy with how Oracle is handling the Sun franchise and their sentiment contrasts sharply with the picture of "happy Sun customers" painted by Oracle executives on the company's earnings call last week.

Despite upbeat sales reports on Sun hardware from Oracle on Thursday's call, some very large Sun customers are moving to competitive servers. Sources at those companies all cited the lack of a specific hardware roadmap for Sparc-based machines going out more than a few months and a similar lack of clarity on Solaris plans. They also dislike the new pricier and less flexible Sun hardware support policy under Oracle. The main beneficiaries of these decisions appear to be IBM and its Series P franchise for Sparc/Solaris shops and blades from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell for Sun Linux migrators. There are also reports of some Sun hardware customers kicking the tires to Cisco's Unified Computing System.

To be fair, all of these companies started assessing potential alternatives to Sun hardware before Oracle completed its drawn-out acquisition of Sun Microsystems in January, but Oracle's ownership has not persuaded them to rethink their position and in each case has hardened their resolve to move.

A large New England utility will not invest further in the Sun Sparc-based hardware it currently runs, opting instead to move those workloads to IBM P-series servers. One of the biggest banks in the country has "no plans to invest" further in Sun hardware upgrades. That according to two execs at the two companies who spoke to on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about technology purchase plans. The bank is a huge Sun shop, although it runs other hardware as well. It too is investing in IBM P-series hardware. The difference is that in the past it would upgrade across vendor lines. Now, virtually all new server purchases will be from IBM, although it will maintain a few legacy Sun servers.

Sun shops cite lack of Sparc roadmap
While Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has said Oracle will spend more on Sparc and Solaris than Sun did on its own, there is no evidence to back up that contention, these execs said. They worried when Oracle stopped development on Rock, Sun's next-generation Sparc chip.

Oracle's annual partner sales kickoff is tomorrow, at which it may outline its sales strategy and go-to-market plans, but these execs have made their decision. Representatives of Sun shops say that even Oracle's much-vaunted Exadata V2 database machine, while ostensibly running on Sun hardware, is an Intel-based box running Oracle Linux. In the current V2 release, there is nary a Sparc chip nor a byte of Solaris to be found. Sparc and Solaris are the foundational technologies of the independent Sun Microsystems.

"What did Oracle buy with Sun -- Sparc? It's not in there. Solaris? It's not in there, although they've been saying vague things about a Sparc-based Exadata," said a third Sun shop executive.

One division of a large defense contractor will also forego future Sun hardware or operating system buy-in and instead move to standard blades from HP, Dell or other vendors running Linux or IBM P Series servers running Linux, depending on the application, said a source close to that contractor. Two other divisions of the same contractor are weighing a similar move.

The contractor is so perturbed by what it perceives as Oracle's heavy-handed support policies that it won't even consider moving to IBM AIX or HP-UX for fear of another bout of vendor lock-in down the road, the source said.

The contractor is similarly confused about what Oracle has in store for the venerable and powerful Sparc franchise.

The utility company came to its decision over the past year as it did its usual due diligence for this hardware upgrade cycle, the executive there said.

"Every few years, we look very, very hard at price-performance and the cost/advantages of different hardware. Historically, we've stayed with Sun, but [in] the last few analyses things got close with IBM and now we see the IBM P Series 6 or 7 has a definite price-performance advantage over Sun hardware," he said.

"Second, we looked at the Sun roadmap and there isn't one. In fact, it's almost an anti-roadmap because of some of the announcements higher entities have made with tech enhancements backburnered or canceled, starting with Rock."

We looked at the Sun roadmap and there isn't one. In fact, it's almost an anti-roadmap.
Executive at a New England utility company,

While these three defections are anecdotal, it's hard to find a data center professional who feels warm and fuzzy about Oracle's first moves with Sun -- especially the new support policies that have jacked up their hardware support costs considerably and cut current users off from firmware upgrades until they put all their existing Sun hardware under support -- and pay a penalty for any machines on which they let support lapse.

Nearly all these Sun shops concede that Oracle's much-touted Exadata machine holds promise but that its $1 million price tag is too steep for their blood.

An IT exec with a Fortune 100 company said he is wary of every software negotiation with Oracle and is not happy that he will now have to deal with the company on hardware as well. That company has no plans to stop buying Sun hardware, however.

One issue is that Oracle is forging ahead with its integration of Sun much as it has done successfully with its integration of large software companies like PeopleSoft, Seibel Systems and BEA Systems. It does not appear to understand that hardware is a different type of business, several sources said.

"With Oracle's new collapsed support programs coupled with their more restrictive policies, more and more Sun users are looking at alternative platforms from other vendors at a faster pace since it seems that Oracle is applying a software support model to their newly added hardware business, and clearly Sun users are not in agreement with that approach," said Patrick Zanelli, technical product manager at Akibia, an IT consultant based in Westborough, Mass.

Having said all that, it's very difficult to rip out one set of hardware for another, and some smaller Oracle and Sun shops aren't planning to jump anytime soon. The Quebequois municipality Ville de Levis runs applications like Oracle 11g and 911 services on older Sun V240 and V245 servers, which it plans to swap out gradually over the next three years.

If Stephane Laurencelle, senior technician at the municipality, has his druthers, the municipality will stay on Sun hardware. "I love Solaris 10. With my 911 services, it's been over 900 days without a restart. In four years, I've only had to replace two disk drives, and have had no problems."

But finances come in to play. Currently, Ville de Levis does not pay maintenance on either box, instead relying on a backup V240 server that it purchased for $1,500 (Sun maintenance would have cost $4,000 for two years). Under Oracle, the municipality might have to pay back maintenance on the hardware, whether it likes it or not.

If so, that won't be the first time Oracle has priced itself out of reach. The town wanted to deploy Oracle's human resources application, but with the $1 million price tag had to explore other options. Instead, it teamed up with another city and purchased a competing HR package for $300,000. "Sometimes you have to make choices," Laurencelle said.

Oracle: More Sun hardware on the way
None of these accounts match the rosy picture painted by Oracle co-presidents Safra Catz and Charles Phillips on last weeks' fourth quarter and fiscal year 2010 earnings call. There they said Sun hardware contributed $400 million to the company's operating income for the quarter and that Sun's overall contribution will meet or exceed $1.5 billion in FY 2011 -- which started June 1, 2010, and $2 billion in FY 2012.

And there were hints about future hardware offerings including what may be Oracle's entry into the converged data center space. Phillips mentioned an upcoming "Oracle VM machine" that will include an integrated network switch and storage array packaged up with Oracle VM, preconfigured VM manager and templates. No further details were provided.

And if Oracle's support policies and high prices were not included in the equation, the company's new "software, hardware, complete" message does resonate with some accounts, which paint the Oracle appliance approach as kind of an iPod for the data center, with all the benefits and drawbacks of one-stop shopping.

News Director Alex Barrett contributed to this story.

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