The X Factor: Database Appliances Come Around Again
August 21, 2006 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The great thing about a general purpose operating system like a variant of Unix, Windows, or Linux is that it is designed to support a lot of different applications and many different means to access those applications. The original computers from decades ago were primitive and also relatively secure and easy to manage by modern standards. The price/performance improvements in increasingly complex operating systems have not come even close to offsetting the annoyance and cost of patching and securing them. Even a free operating system carries a very large people cost.
Which is why makers of software that resides on top of operating systems are, once again, trying to figure out how to get rid of as much of the operating system as possible and create what amounts to an appliance. The most interesting revival of this idea comes from open source database maker Ingres, which was freed from CA last year and which is experimenting with an appliance approach to delivering its eponymous relational database to a crowded market.
At the LinuxWorld event in San Francisco last week, Ingres announced a forth-coming product called Project Icebreaker that will, in the companies own words, “add operating system functionality to its database,” thereby obviating the need to install a full-blown operating system on a server before installing Ingres on top of it. Ingres is partnering with rPath, a fairly new Linux distributor founded by a bunch of ex-Red Hat techies to create a customizable repository of Linux components and applications that reside on it to, in effect, allow its customers to make massively customizable and instantly updatable Linux-based application appliances.
The approach that Ingres and rPath are taking is reminiscent of a project called “Raw Iron,” which was launched by Oracle and Sun Microsystems in late 1998 as Microsoft was launching its SQL Server 7.0 database management system. That version of SQL Server was arguably the first credible, enterprise-ready relational database from Microsoft, and to try to steal a little thunder from Microsoft, Oracle and Sun cooked up a scheme that would put the Oracle 8i database on a stripped-down version of Solaris running on Sun’s UltraSparc servers. Raw Iron was a database server appliance, and would only include those elements of the Solaris operating system that were needed to support Oracle 8i and to connect it to the outside world. This was a very interesting idea, and soon the idea was renamed the Oracle 8i Appliance and Hewlett-Packard and Dell had signed up to do variants of it as well. (At this time in 1999, Solaris 8, which was ported to 32-bit X86 processors, was in beta, and these HP and Dell Raw Iron appliances were expected to run Solaris.) The Oracle 8i Appliance shipped in the summer of 2000, and not on Sparc iron, but on X86-based SMP servers. Soon thereafter, Sun got cold feet on Solaris on X86–Solaris 9 was not supported on X86 platforms–and the database appliance idea quietly went away.
This database appliance approach stands in stark contrast to another approach that has also been tried in the market–deeply embedding a database management system within an operating system. IBM implemented its first commercial relational database system (an idea it invented but which Oracle commercialized first) in the System/38 minicomputer, which launched in 1980. The System/38’s CPF operating system didn’t just have a relational database embedded in it–the database was the one and only file system in the box. The System/38 was a computer that thought in terms of storing and sorting data in a database, and did not have a means for storing unstructured data. The follow-on AS/400 system launched in 1988 had a modified version of CPF, with a new OS/400 name, that had the same embedded database/file system format. But in 1995, as IBM revamped the AS/400 for the PowerPC chips, it also ripped the database out of the heart of OS/400, grafting a regular ASCII file system onto the operating system to support PC files and Web serving, among other things.
To a certain extent, Digital’s VAX minicomputers, VMS operating systems, and RDB database were tightly coupled, as was HP’s MPE operating system and its integrated IMAGE database, and it mimicked the approach IBM took with the System/38 and AS/400. Both had an integrated approach, although one could argue that it was not nearly as tight an integration. Today, Sun seems to be moving in this direction of integrating a database with its operating system, having picked up the PostgreSQL database and embedded inside the latest update of the Solaris 10 operating system for Sparc and X64 platforms. For now, the integration of Solaris and PostgreSQL is one of distribution and single-source technical support through Sun. Solaris is not using PostgreSQL as a data store of default, like OS/400 used to on the AS/400s. And Sun is certainly not supporting PostgreSQL exclusively. Sun drives a lot of sales because of Oracle and Sybase databases.
The interesting thing about the Ingres approach to the database appliance is that Ingres is not going to charge a premium for its database appliance, which will run on any Linux-compatible X86 or X64 server. Ingres has worked out a licensing and distribution agreement with rPath for its Linux distribution and the tools to maintain it, and customers will simply buy Ingres and use it as if they bought a regular license and put it on a Linux, Unix, or Windows box. In this case, the Icebreaker variant of Ingres code will be running on a stripped down Linux maintained through the rPath tools, and Ingres is eating the cost of licensing the rPath distribution. Basically, customers who buy Icebreaker are getting their Linux license and support for free.
While rPath is focused on Linux at the moment, there is no reason that it could not extend its approach to building operating system and application appliances to OpenSolaris, which would basically bring Raw Iron back to life. Other vendors that control their own operating systems–think Microsoft with Windows, IBM with AIX and i5/OS, and HP with HP-UX–could also deliver their own database appliances in conjunction with partners when they don’t own their own databases, if the Icebreaker idea takes off.