Analytics firm Polk expands performance with Oracle Exadata machines
Tightly integrated appliance hits the right notes
By Chris Kanaracus | Published: 12:30, 20 July 2011
Oracle wants to triple the number of installed Exadata database machines to 3,000 in its current fiscal year, and it could get there by tapping existing customers like automotive analytics vendor Polk.
Polk maintains a massive store of information related to automobiles and uses it to provide a variety of analytics on areas such as brand loyalty and market forecasting. Its customers include auto dealers, part suppliers and insurance companies.
The company had been running Oracle's 10g database on a six-node cluster against an EMC Symmetrix DMX-4 storage system. Using its planned hardware refresh budget, it recently moved to a half-rack Exadata box, and in the process, upgraded to database version 11g. Polk is also rolling out Oracle's BI (business intelligence) suite.
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The company's systems experience "rush hours" at certain times of the month, pressured by a spike in complex queries.
"We were running into your typical challenges where consumers were becoming impatient with the technology we were providing," said Kelly Garcia, vice president of global application development and support. "Every one of our customer-facing analytical products now sits on Exadata."
Unified database computing
If there's a single product that represents Oracle's future, it may be Exadata, an appliance that combines database software, storage and networking components for processing large amounts of data.
Exadata, along with the Exalogic application server appliance, are the first two efforts by Oracle to reinvent itself following the acquisition of Sun Microsystems with products that combine its strengths, while locking down a bigger cut of customers' IT budgets.
Oracle may be basing its aggressive growth forecast for Exadata on the notion that more customers are considering a hardware update after holding off for years during the global recession, and also crave higher performance to deal with growing volumes of data. Both characteristics apply to Polk.
With Exadata, Polk saw a tenfold speed increase on average without any tweaking, and the performance gets better each month as Polk makes further adjustments.
Polk looked at other platforms besides Exadata, including DATAllegro, which was acquired by Microsoft.
Exadata ended up making more sense for a number of reasons, one being cost. Polk was able to move Oracle database licences it already had over to the Exadata system. In addition, Polk obtained a "good" discount from Oracle, said Doug Miller, director of database development and support, although he and Garcia declined to provide specifics.
Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and other executives have also repeatedly touted the easier management and upkeep Exadata's tightly integrated server, networking and storage components provide.
Of course, such integration also means customers get locked into a stack of technologies from one vendor, but Polk sees the benefits. In the past, a hardware systems upgrade would take several weeks to install and test, and that's after the process of choosing the components, Miller said.
"This thing, they just rolled it in and dropped it off their dolly," he said. "The whole thing's there. Two days later, we were running databases. The footprint is quite striking. It replaces almost a row of equipment."
There are fewer system problems with Exadata, given the compatibility issues with drivers and other components that can crop up in a mixed environment, he said.
In addition, there's no chance for a vendor blame game when things go wrong. With Exadata, "you do have one organisation to call," Miller said. "You toss it in their lap. They can't disavow knowledge of it. It's their baby."
Oracle has some things yet to learn about the hardware business, however, he said. "They're not as mature in the disk management space as an EMC. On Exadata when a disk starts to go out... it's more aggravation than with EMC."
It's not clear how the process of upgrading Exadata will work. Right now, at least, Oracle doesn't want customers plugging new components into older Exadata systems to add performance, Miller said.
Still, Polk is happy enough with Exadata that it may buy another one to serve testing and development purposes. "From the development staff perspective [having only one] is a little irritating," Garcia said. "Everybody wants to be connected to Exadata."
The more than 1,000 Exadata machines that have been installed at customer sites around the world are purchased systems, not loaners given to customers as part of proof-of-concept exercises, Oracle spokeswoman Letty Ledbetter said.
Better than the competition?
While Oracle seems to be making some headway with Exadata, its claims should be put in the proper context, according to one expert.
"All vendors would like to imply a greater or more rapid adoption than is actually the case," said analyst Curt Monash of Monash Research, who closely tracks the database market. "I'm certainly hearing of Exadata as a competitive factor. It's still hard to find enough users to get a reliable view from the field."
From a performance perspective, Exadata doesn't necessarily top its competition, but it is still "a very respectable family of technologies" that may make sense for some customers, Monash said.
"If someone's committed to Oracle hell or high water and needs more analytic performance, that's what Exadata has been built for," Monash said. "Exadata is a clear upgrade over what people put in a few years ago. That's not the same thing as saying it's superior to other alternatives they could put in today."
In terms of "analytic database management, for most use cases there are superior alternatives to Exadata," Monash added.
The competitive picture may change later this year. Oracle is planning to release an addon for Exadata that will incorporate in-memory computing technology, Ellison revealed last month.