Eating, Smashing, and Mixing

The acquisition of Sun by Oracle raises many questions and recalls some past experiences

The Oracle/Sun takeover is in the news. It was reported that the Justice Department gave the acquisition the go ahead. Of course the powers that be must check things over, but most people will tell you when you are up to you chest in water, it might be time to sell the boat. I say this with some sorrow. I hate to see companies that contribute go by the way side. I am not saying Oracle does not contribute, but things will be different without Sun.

I have had similar concerns in the past when companies get eaten or smashed. The one doing the eating gains some weight, then looks in the mirror. “Seems I’m a little heavy here, I don’t want that, redundant over here, I’m going to have to do something about this.” It usually takes a year or so, but at some point the shake-out (shake-off) happens. There is also the “sword over my head” syndrome, where no one from the acquired company wants to make any decisions. If you make the wrong one, you are out. So there is often a period of running in the sand as it were.

Sometimes companies vanish, other times they retain some identity. I was around when they smashed up AT&T. The current “AT&T” is not the old AT&T, thought they current holders of the name would like you to think so. I had the privilege of visiting The Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ during graduate school (AT&T’s research center). One the researchers at the lab was doing work similar to mine, so I asked him to be on my committee. I always had a sense of awe when I visited. This is where UNIX, the transistor, the laser, and countless other breakthroughs took place. They had a huge pedigree of Nobel Laureates as well. This place was a national treasure. Like all good things, the hammer came down, smashed it apart then let the pieces dry up an blow off into the wind. Nice work.

Which brings me to the Oracle/Sun deal. Before, I lament any further, I want to share an HPC story. Back in the day, there was a company called nCUBE, which was founded in 1983 by a group of Intel employees. The nCUBE machine was a true parallel computer based on a hypercube design. It had no switches and communicated through direct processor to processor links. The dimension of the cube was the number of links connecting each node. Sandia National Labs had a 1024 processor system at one point.

At the time (early 1990′s), I was working on various parallel software projects and got to know some people at nCUBE (parallel computing was a small world back then). There was also a fairly large nCUBE over at Rutgers University, to which I was given access. As an architecture, the nCUBE worked rather well. During the course of my work, I had many discussions with the local sales representative who found his job a little challenging. It seems that in 1988, Larry Ellison purchased a controlling chunk of nCUBE. The plan was to use the nCUBE for a parallel database machine. The sales rep told me he was hired to sell this machine into the database market. As things go in the computer industry, it took much longer to get the Oracle database working than was originally planned. This delay put my sales rep friend in a tough position. Instead of selling OLTP to the suits, he was selling HPC to the geeks. He adapted, but it was tough for database guy to grok the HPC space where the intricacies of parallel computing were often at the front of almost every discussion. Recall, MPI did not hit the scene until after 1994.

Surprisingly, nCUBE managed to stay afloat and was sold in 2005, but they had long since moved out of HPC. With respect to the Oracle/Sun deal, I have a concern for the oil and water mixture of database and HPC. Both run on the same hardware as they did back in the early nineties. Both are real markets. The culture could not be more different, however. As I saw first hand with nCUBE the suit/geek impedance mismatch is rather large.

Sun has a big HPC presence. They also contribute quite a bit to the community — Sun Grid Engine being a good example. More importantly, there are people at Sun that understand and are successful in the HPC market. What is Oracle going to do with this asset? And, I do mean asset. In reality, however, the size of the HPC market compared to the database market is rather small, so I assume from an accounting perspective anything can happen. Letting Sun HPC die on the vine will be difficult to watch as would a wholesale elimination of the division. Selling it may make some sense, but to whom? Keeping it would require mixing two very different mind-sets, neither of which is wrong, they are just different. For now, like everyone else, I’ll have to wait and see.

Before I close, I cannot help but mention the value of Open Source in situations like these. Stuff happens. Businesses grow, die, get eaten, change course, or just do stupid things. If the software you built a career on is tied to the destiny of one company, then you run the risk of going down with the ship. Sun is the caretaker of some very popular open source applications, MySQL, Open Office, Grid Engine, Lustre, to name a few. Each of these comes with an insurance policy that says something to the effect “if we go away, you don’t have to.” Thank you Sun, you will be missed.

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