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Appliance Vendors Downplay Microsoft's DW Push

Last month, Microsoft announced SQL Server Fast Track Data Warehouse, a reference architecture program designed to predictably scale SQL Server 2008 to data warehouse (DW) configurations of up to 32TB.

On its face, Fast Track could be a serious challenge to the data warehouse appliance players that have targeted SQL Server's shortcomings in large DW configurations, but DW appliance vendors aren't worried. Even those vendors that may be the most impacted by Microsoft's move -- such as Dataupia Inc. and ParAccel Inc. -- raise credible objections about Redmond's Fast Track program, starting with its lack of any massively parallel processing (MPP) component. DW appliance customers, a handful of whom are running on top of SQL Server, also raise concerns.

Said Dataupia CTO John O'Brien, "What Microsoft is doing, it's the same thing as when Oracle announced their [Oracle Optimized Warehouse] reference architectures. I know all of the Oracle customers that really need that kind of information. They need the reference configurations to help them -- there's really nothing out there; consultants are the ones who provide all of that. So there's value in what they're doing but they don't solve the problem that we solve."

Like ParAccel, Dataupia pushes a message of coexistence: Customers don't want to gut their existing DW infrastructures, O'Brien said. In fact, he conceded there are DW applications for which SQL Server 2008 is well-suited. With this in mind, he considers Dataupia a high-octane complement to SQL Server and Oracle data warehouse systems.

"There are customers who invested a lot in their environment. They want it to stay there; they don't want to migrate to another platform and replace everything and rewrite their applications. But they did have a serious data-volume problem to solve," O'Brien said.

Like most of his colleagues, O'Brien is cautious of Microsoft's move but sees it as a good thing for DW appliance players. What's more, he said, Dataupia's claimed $10,000-per-TB price point for Satori Server comes in at $3,500 less (on a per-TB basis) than Microsoft's MSRP for Fast Track. "We're quietly optimistic. It does play to our strengths -- which was the low TCO around data management -- around on-demand scalability. You don't have to build out a bigger environment; you can add more as you need to grow," O'Brien said.

Industry veteran and ParAccel VP of marketing Kim Stanick has a similar take. ParAccel, like Dataupia, can be implemented either as a DW platform or (in its Amigo incarnation) as a complement to Oracle or SQL Server databases. What's more, and unlike Dataupia, ParAccel adds a columnar capability to its MPP underpinnings. In addition to pre-fab hardware and software bundles, ParAccel sells its software separately, Stanick said, bringing its price-per-TB down to less than $6,000.

Like other DW appliance proponents, Stanick uses a familiar figure of speech to describe the performance of DB2, Oracle and SQL Server as data warehouse platforms. They're fine for smaller DW configurations (with limited users and with a finite diversity of query types), she said, but tend to "hit a wall" when scaled into double-digit terabyte territory. Their use in high-end, double-digit terabyte implementations is a function of two drivers, according to Stanick: IT's comfort level with technologies it knows (namely brand-name relational database platforms) and a one-size-fits-all philosophy which emphasizes platform standardization to help reduce administrative or other costs.

One-size-fits-all rarely makes sense in practice, Stanick said. In the case of analytic databases -- where Teradata Corp., Netezza Inc., Dataupia, ParAccel and other players can all trumpet anecdotes that have users of large Oracle or SQL Server data warehouses going from response times of several minutes down to the sub-second level -- a one-size-fits-all approach can leave companies at a huge disadvantage with respect to their competitors.

"Whereas it used to be that people wanted a one-size-fits-all solution, or they wanted a limited set of technologies, the whole mode of appliances has helped people realize that they don't have to be as limited with their selections anymore. It doesn't have to become a religious war anymore," Stanick said.

"I don't know if appliances caused this or if they're feeding the fire, but again, the reason shops started to consolidate is to reduce the complexity and their overall costs, because of the human costs of having to manage a very mixed management environment. Once they did that, they found that [their data warehouse systems] were just hitting up against a wall: Their SQL Server or Oracle data warehouses just aren't responsive enough for their business needs."

Tim Young, vice president of corporate marketing for Netezza, favors a different figure of speech -- that of the leaky pipe. His message, however, is eerily familiar: DW appliances redress the shortcomings -- typically poor query performance, which Young said is best measured by breaches in service-level agreements, or SLAs -- of brand-name DBMS warehouses.

The point, Young said, isn't that Microsoft's SQL Server Fast Track configurations -- or Oracle's Optimized Warehouse (OOW) systems, for that matter -- can't or don't scale. It's rather an issue of their not being the best solutions for particular business requirements. In a tough economic climate, he said, customers are going to think more tactically than strategically. In this context, the platform standardization or enterprise data warehouse (EDW) initiatives that once determined their strategies will get shifted to the backburner.

"We have always sold tactically. We sell a solution to a leaky pipe. A customer basically has a problem with a particular application -- revenue assurance, loyalty management, clickstream analysis -- and that problem shows up in terms of SLA breaches. We would come in and be considered as the solution for that particular problem," he said. "In a recession, that's all people think about. No one is thinking about corporate-wide, enterprise-wide or culture-changing projects. Our view is that in most cases the advantage with the better performance will offset any perceived disadvantage [with regard to] standardization. In the vast majority of cases, the Oracle or SQL Server decision is based on convenience for the IT department."

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