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October 1, 2008

Oracle Shifts Grid Focus to the Application

Dennis Barker

Oracle’s newest candidate to solve some of IT Nation’s biggest problems has now officially hit the campaign trail, and its name is WebLogic Application Grid. This new assemblage of software is meant to put grid capabilities at the foundation of an organization’s computing operations by pooling IT resources and allocating them to workloads as needed.

“Think of WebLogic Application Grid as similar to a service-oriented architecture,” said Mike Piech, an Oracle senior director of product marketing, during a recent briefing. “It’s not a single product, not a single technology, but an infrastructure with a certain set of characteristics to provide on-demand behavior. Our approach is to have all the foundation-level middleware technologies play into that basic idea of the grid: pooling and sharing resources, using them more efficiently, but also providing a higher quality of service.”

As Piech alluded, WebLogic Application Grid has many different components. WebLogic, the application server Oracle acquired when it bought BEA Systems last year, can be thought of as the core constituent. But to turn it into an application grid server, the company added several of its Fusion Middleware technologies (Application Grid is considered part of the Fusion collection), starting with a new version of Coherence, its in-memory data grid. Coherence provides scale-out capability by dynamically partitioning data in memory across multiple servers, and, Oracle says, ensuring that data is continuously available. The new version 3.4 supports C/C++ so that the many programs written in those languages can take advantage of grid capabilities.

One of the key foundation blocks of the Application Grid is the Java virtual machine, and Oracle’s JRockit Real-Time can deliver “extreme transaction processing performance” to Java applications, Piech said.

“Deterministic garbage collection is a key differentiator that Oracle is providing here,” said Steve Harris, senior vice president of product development for server technologies, during a webcast. “It gives you this predictable, low-latency, high-throughput performance on Java that separates it from other offerings.”

JRockit Mission Control gives the developer and the datacenter better insight into how Java apps are performing, so they’re easier to fix when there are application-level issues, Oracle says. “You get detailed information about how code is executing, where latency is, and so on, and it’s all presented in an easily consumable interface environment,” Harris said. “That information is gathered by the JVM at all times and exposed to the user.”

Further into the stack, there’s Tuxedo (from BEA), the veteran distributed transaction processing platform, which Harris described as “pretty much the original scale-out-on-standard-hardware solution … [that] brings grid-like capability to the C/C++ world, as well as leveraging the memory grid capabilities of Coherence.”

Grid Belongs in the Middle

For Oracle, it’s all about the middleware. That’s where grid capabilities belong, the company says. “You need intelligence in the middle layer between hardware resources and the applications taking advantage of them,” said Hasan Rizvi, senior vice president for Fusion Middleware products, during a webcast detailing Oracle’s application grid strategy for customers and analysts.
 
“The Application Grid is the notion of taking a shared pool of resources and applying it to the workloads you have. At Oracle, we have been working on this for many years. We addressed this first at the database level. But how do we take that now to the next level, for the application environment?” By sharing and pooling resources at a higher level of the stack — applying it to middleware that sits right beneath your apps.

Rizvi said the first business benefit of this approach is cost efficiency. “If you’re able to manage your resources in a way that is shared and available to all workloads, it gives you lower operational costs. A common environment lets you reduce not just hardware costs but the human element of what you need to run that environment,” he said.

Another major advantage is “risk-free scale-out,” Piech said in an earlier briefing. “As demand goes up, you need to be able to dynamically add capacity to those SOA services. In the past, that involved taking the service down, rehosting it on a bigger machine, or taking it down to add new nodes…What we are providing is the ability to create a grid with Fusion Middleware. You can scale out dynamically with low or no risk.

“Here’s an example. A large auto insurance company in periods of high growth and demand can add memory capacity without taking the app down. Coherence lets IT add nodes so that it’s transparent to end users.”

When a customer asked during the web briefing, “Does this mean I now have to scrap my Oracle App Server 10.3 and rebuild using the BEA architecture stack?” Rizvi said no. “This is an ongoing investment we have to take advantage of grid capabilities. It’s not a change in direction or taking a right turn or whatever. We’re advancing the infrastructure to better provide the services customers need.”

Asked if Application Grid is “cloud computing in the enterprise,” Oracle officials said, well, not really, although some of the concepts are the same.

Noting that cloud computing means different things to people, Rizvi said, “We are not proposing outsourcing your IT department, which is one definition. But it is related to cloud computing and to virtualization in the sense of being able to provision machines quickly and easily, giving IT operations scalability.”

Harris elaborated. “If you take Coherence as a case in point,” he said, “we have customers who are distributing their data across a data grid of hundreds of nodes, which is very cloudlike in some cloud sense of the word. Now, those customers can then take advantage of the compute power across that [grid]. If you are a WebLogic customer who’s written a standard J2EE app that is sharing session state using J2EE mechanisms, that session state can be shared across the grid also. No one has to change any app to take advantage of that.”

Oracle declined to mention specific customers using the new grid platform, but Adam Messinger, vice president of development for Fusion Middleware, says its capabilities are particularly appealing to financial services, for example, because of quick recovery time if a machine fails and failover with a minimum of service disruption. Scalability and performance attributes bestowed by Coherence enable financial analysts to compute risk values “in minutes instead of hours and days,” he said. “They can trade in ways they couldn’t before.”

Doing things faster remains the objective. “IT is more and more an enabler of business strategy, so you need to reduce the time it takes to absorb business-driven priorities without having to take months and weeks to figure that out,” Rizvi said. “With the grid you can actually shrink the time it takes for you to get the requirements from business and react to that because you have a much more flexible environment, and that flexibility is an important element. With the grid approach you have baked-in high availability, baked-in high reliability. There’s a lot of redundancy built into the system so you don’t have to worry about it for every application.

“This normally requires rocket science to get it right, but [our approach] brings that into the platform. You can react to these workloads and increase the resources available to them. The way to do that is to provide that intelligence in the software. We can essentially do this out of the box so you don’t have to worry about it for each application.”