Oracle’s automated database is a minimum viable release - analyst

Larry's revolution is incremental change that DBAs need not fear

Openworld Wrap Oracle’s annual OpenWorld conference is over. The streets of San Francisco are free of the hordes of execs, devs and analysts, and everyone has gone home to mull over what they've learned.

The order of the day was - quelle surprise - cloud, plus a good measure of machine learning, blockchain and chatbots thrown in on the side, with the headline announcement being Big Red’s “self-driving” database, also known as "18c" now that Oracle has changed its database naming conventions.

The autonomous features are only available if Oracle controls your whole environment, so you'll need either Oracle public cloud or Cloud at Customer - where you install Oracle’s cloud software behind your firewall, in your data centre.

“I can’t make your car autonomous unless you buy my car,” said senior veep for system technology Juan Loaiza in an OpenWorld session.

The aim is full end-to-end automation, he said, which will see the database provision, scale, tune and secure itself.

Loaiza said patching will happen automatically once a quarter, applied in a rolling fashion across nodes of cluster for availability. That's the same patch cadence Oracle offers for its other products, but Oracle will make exceptions for high impact security vulnerabilities. Oracle’s operations are locked out of the database, he added, they can only gain access with a “break glass” procedure after first gaining customer approval.

The database will be optimised for different workloads, with data warehousing coming first, at the end of this calendar year, followed by OLTP in 2018. Users can choose whether to have the fully autonomous system for mission-critical workloads, or a “low cost” one for dev/test or non-critical.

But Loazia acknowledged that, although the initial release “is very complete” there was still a lot of work to do. For instance, the database has to handle a large number of complex tasks, he said, including handling failures and errors, and performance tuning and optimisation.

“I doubt it will be perfect from day one - there will be hiccups,” said Ovum analyst Tony Baer, who likened it to a 1.0 release, that - due in part to it being a machine-learning product - would be improved on.

“They’re not going to call it a minimum viable release, but I can - that’s not a criticism. It will get better over time.”

‘We don’t usually do guarantees’

Oracle is making two guarantees about the database to its customers.

First, 99.995 per cent availability - that’s 30 minutes of downtime a year - with “no ridiculous exclusions”, so it counts downtime to be patching, regional outages and more. The second is that it will beat Amazon’s price by 50 per cent.

The company is going hard on these promises. Loaiza said of the downtime pledge that Oracle “doesn’t usually use the word guarantee… we don’t even know how to spell guarantee”.

Steve Daheb, senior vice-president for cloud, said something similar for price: “We’ve got to have a lot of confidence in our performance to make a guarantee like that.”

There’s a healthy degree of scepticism about how Oracle will manage this, or whether it will be taking a hit in order to stick to the guarantee - an idea Daheb dismissed: “It wouldn’t make a lot of great business sense for us to take a hit.”

He also told The Reg that Oracle might look beyond the current “hard dollar costs” of the database-as-a-service price comparison.

“We’re going to engage with customers on a total cost of ownership discussion, because we think it’s even a stronger case," he said.

‘We’ve been developing this for decades’

It’s worth noting that, behind the hyperbole of the keynote - where CTO Larry Ellison pitched the database as a “revolutionary” change that would “eliminate human error” - Oracle bods have been a little more circumspect elsewhere.

“We’ve been developing this for decades,” Loaiza said - something echoed by both Daheb and president of product development Thomas Kurian.

Indeed, in a briefing with media, Kurian said that some level of automation for day-to-day management - backing up and encryption keys, for example - was available in existing database versions 11.2, 12.1 and 12.2.

The 18c version improves on this, he said, by allowing automated monitoring and failure detection, and autocorrection of failures and automatic tuning.

“It’s steady, incremental growth, and it’s a strong set of products,” Paul Miller, analyst at Forrester told The Register.

“We’ve seen lots of mention of machine learning this week. But how much of that is new and amazing as opposed to vanilla automation you’ve been working on for a long time, is not clear.”

There’s also an important distinction to be made between a database that has a number of automated processes and one that is fully autonomous.

Customers can choose to just use automation, or to take the plunge and hand over all their management to Oracle’s cloud operations for the autonomous option.

“At the autonomous level, you lose database and OS administrator privileges,” said Lozaria. All control will be relinquished to Oracle; the company will handle everything, including exception and failure cases.

This, he said, was essential for the smooth-running of the database. “You can’t have someone grabbing the wheel.”

Customers will get some say in what goes on - for instance, patching will be automatic, but the user can set a maintenance window, and can manually override the scheduled time if they don’t like it.

“There’s been a lot of heated debate [within Oracle] about how much control people should have,” he said, adding that people need “some choice” but can’t be given full control - “they can’t be five years behind” with patching.

He also acknowledged that it would be “a process to get people there”, but argued that the payoff - reducing costs, reducing errors and improving availability - would be “huge”.

The end of the line for DBAs?

One of the payoffs that Ellison and co. have bandied about is cutting out human labour, which has of course led to plenty of posturing about the future of database administrators.

So, is the DBA dead? In short, and in common with many knee-jerk headlines: QTWTAIN*.

Of course, there’s a legitimate fear, which shouldn’t be dismissed outright, but it's probably better described as pushing a continued evolution of the DBA’s job.

DBAs still going to be vital for complex or large databases, but their role will shift further from being operational to one that involves more thought, analysis and development.

“A freedom from drudgery,” is how Lozaria sold it to the crowd, adding: “There has been more and more automation in every release for decades. You’ve lived through the last few decades, and you’ll live through the next decade also.”

Oracle DBA and blogger Tim Hall agrees with this view. “The aim of this suite of autonomous databases is to automate as much as possible to reduce the need for human interaction and free us from the mundane,” he wrote in a post this week.

“Less time on infrastructure, patching, upgrades, ensuring availability, tuning. More time on database design, data analytics, data policies, securing data.”

Certainly, DBAs who chatted to El Reg during the conference seemed to be of this mindset - although for some this may be partly due to scepticism about Oracle’s offering.

There’s also the question of how long it will take for companies to take the plunge. Some are still wary of, or avoiding, the cloud, and many industries are unlikely to hand over control of mission-critical systems to Big Red soon.

“There’s a lot of concern about giving up control,” said Baer. “The initial uptake will be modest, and a lot will just be getting their feet wet …Organisations like banks, which are highly regulated, will be the last to surrender control.”

Oracle’s Daheb conceded customers might still want to manage something themselves. “They might say, this is dev/test, go ahead, automate that bad boy… this is core, customer facing - maybe we don’t want to do that anytime soon.”

But, he argued, “the big thing” about the autonomous database is that Oracle is offering customers the choice and ability to “get to it at whatever pace makes sense for them”.

Daheb likened the move to autonomous database management to the shift to the cloud, saying this biz offered plenty of choice there.

If Oracle’s customers’ enthusiasm for that change is anything to go by, we will be waiting some time before its autonomous database is the norm. ®

* Question To Which The Answer Is No.

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