Monday, May 21, 2007

Onsite with Dell

Last week (May 16th), we met with a number of technies at Dell. Overall, I think it was a good experience, and I am glad that we as a group were able to interact with some folks "in the know". While I think it was good that we went, there were some downsides that overshadowed our time.

The Dell PR folks did a great job of making a wonderful first impression and reaching out to us. Kudos to Rooney Thomas; I personally thought the organization and planning that went into our itinerary was excellent and was by far the best I have been treated. I am not merely talking about a most excellent dinner at Eddie B's (you gotta check that place out!!) and steep discounts at a super-friendly, classy and very comfortable Marriot. I am also talking about the networking that Rooney did to pull so many folks together for a little chat. Unfortunately, some of those folks were... how do I say this politely? Not exactly needed. But I was impressed with Rooney and the agenda he set up. Along with him were Craig (last name withheld because I simply forgot) and Carey Dietert (more techy/PR guys). I liked Carey - I felt he has a great grasp on the Oracle/Dell relationship, understands the technology really well and knows how to more forward. On top of that, he is a good communicator. There was actually an Oracle representative, but he came late, didn't say anything and left early. He handed out his business card, which I kept for the sole reason of mentioning in this blog and am now tossing away. Apparently he is some "Business Development Manager" for the Dell/Oracle Partnership. Into the bit bucket that one goes.

I will start with the bad and go from there. Rooney pulled together some senior folks in the IT department and about half of them could have stayed in their cubicles (or office or whatever). Take Peter (last name withheld to avoid flash mobs, death threats, etc). Even though he has a couple certifications (Microsoft being one of them *grin*), he is a "Development Engineer" and works with a number of Oracle technologies. Problem is, he was just plain wrong on a couple accounts. Other times, I had no idea why he was even talking. He liked to listen with his eyes closed and his arms crossed. Know the type? Now there are two cards adorning a little basket under my desk.

Another was a DBA-type. I did not get his name, but he presented something early on. Powerpoint and a talking head.... not my style. Fortunately, a lot of questions were asked during his presentation which helped to keep things interesting. Sometimes. A lot of tangents.

Aaron Burns showed up representing the PeopleSoft, and now SunGard BANNER, side of their collaborative testing efforts. He made a relatively (keyword, relatively) impressive pitch, and I have an email in to him. Still waiting to hear back, but I would love to know more. My boss says he saw the presentation at the SCT conference (SUMMIT) and discovered there were a lot of "smoke and mirrors". I am holding out hope that there is actually something worth mining in this contact.

So with all that, I have painted a picture that makes it seem like our trip was a complete waste of time. Well, for some of the Dell folks, I think it was. I got the impression that there was a common misconception that we were possibly considering a migration from our current E10k platform running Banner which is at the core of the University of Illinois to a Dell/Linux/RAC solution. Yes, I am sure they salivated over that. Imagine the almost audible bubble-popping sound when we made it very clear that we were simply considering a 2-node deployment for a infantile yet highly visible and somewhat risky online classroom concept.

In my opinion, the meat and potates were covered by the other folks that came out to play. I will fill in their names when I get them. One dude walked us through their operational centers, exhibiting rows upon rows of rack-mounted hardwired all to various kvm switches. In another room, rows up on rows of desks where employees were connecting to various numbers of the servers and testing things: RAC, Microsfot, PeopleSoft, etc. He gave us a live-demo of killing one node of a two-node RAC which seemed pretty canned to me. I think it was good for the others to see, as I saw something very similar at IOUG. A very simple test in a very controlled environment, yet practical for all that. We were able to ask a lot of relevant questions, talk to the engineers doing the work (those that were with us) and learn a lot just from the adhoc discussion.

For the last couple hours, we crammed into a room with a an offering of sandwiches and sides, engaging in more "Question and Answer". Another Dell Engineer joined us, and he seemed to be very knowledgeable, able to answer technical questions. There we hashed out ideas and a rough road map of how to proceed. Dell has been down the RAC road so many times they now have an image you can download into a CD, which can be used for a local "Big Bang" to jumpstart a typical install. They also have copious documentation, some of which they are willing to share, and a butt-load of advice. Logan McLeod joined us near the end and clarified a few things for us, but also painted a very realistic picture; a number of big shops are already running RAC, and more are heading that way. I have said this before, but he really likes to automate things, and in the context of what he said, I am a new convert. Automate the procedures to deploy a new databsae or new Oracle software. Automate and consolidate monitoring. And the very first step is to establish standards, which drive and focus the automation.

What did we come away with? I think some definites are the use of ASM and Logan practically praised the efforts being done with 11g and is rather confident that 11g will be an unusual first release in that it will not be as buggy as most of Oracle RDBMS first releases. Obviouisly, we will let others test the water a little bit, but I think is the way to go for now. Also, there is some interest to use Dell's cookie-cutter install, even if only to see how it tastes. We also came away with a better idea how to carve up the disk, and more realistic expectations; Linux kernel patches still require database-wide downtime, even with RAC.

I hope to add more later. We have a meeting tomorrow and I look forward to hear what the others have to say.

In closing, I was really impressed with Dell. They have some really smart people doing really smart things. They are confidently on the edge of Oracle's technology, and they have established their confidence in rigorous testing. Dell is aggresively going after the market niche of customers who want to stop paying exorbitant license fees for colossal hardware. Granted, RAC is not necessarily the "best of breed" for everyone; I think too often the technology drives the SLA, instead of the SLA driving the technology. It will be interesting to see how this relationship matures.

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