Oracle's future for Sun's hardware and OS business is now clear

May 6, 2010

The alternate title for this entry is 'how to persuade us to never buy your hardware again'.

The old Sun had both a general server business and a general OS business, and people used both; they bought Sun servers to run lots of operating systems and they ran Solaris on lots of non-Sun hardware. It is now clear that Oracle is nothing like this. Solaris now exists only to run on Oracle hardware, and Oracle hardware exists only to run Solaris and a few other Oracle-supported operating systems.

Why do I say this? Well, it's due to the latest bit of Oracle news, to wit that Oracle has restricted access to firmware updates (via Slashdot). In order to get firmware updates, your hardware either has to be under its one-year warranty or you have to have an Oracle support contract for it. Older than a year and without a support contract? You lose. This policy change was introduced abruptly and with no advance warning; it appears that even (ex-)Sun and Oracle support people may not understand it yet.

(Note that you must have a support contract that includes hardware support. A Solaris software support contract is not good enough, as I have verified.)

This is much more important than it looks from the outside. For most systems, server firmware updates are relatively unimportant; few people ever apply BIOS updates. But Sun servers have integrated lights out management processors, which are network accessible under some circumstances, and they have had security vulnerabilities. These security vulnerabilities are fixed with, you guessed it, firmware updates.

As far as I am concerned, this makes access to firmware updates somewhere between very important and vital for running production Sun servers, especially since their excellent ILOMs were much of the reason to prefer them in the first place.

But wait, it gets better: you cannot buy hardware support without buying Oracle software support (at least for new support contracts), and software support is twice as expensive as the hardware support. Software support costs 8% of the net hardware purchase cost per year, and adding hardware support costs an additional 4% per year (per here, found via Hacker News). Oracle very explicitly won't sell hardware support by itself, and have said so clearly.

This makes it very clear that Oracle intends their hardware almost exclusively for running Oracle-supported operating systems, since if you run a non-supported OS on Oracle hardware, you are completely wasting the 8% a year Oracle software support fee.

(If you do not get hardware support, you are gambling on there not ever being an ILOM security vulnerability that affects you. Since the ILOM is accessible from the server itself under some circumstances, this is not a bet that I would want to take.)

There are two immediate corollaries to this firmware access policy change. First, if you still have systems under hardware warranty (or hardware support contract), get the latest firmware updates now while you still can, even if you don't plan to apply them. Second, smart people buying second-hand Sun servers are likely to either demand that they be at the latest firmware version or require a potentially significant price discount, or both.

(Hence one reason to get the latest firmware updates even if you never plan on applying them yourself.)

Written on 06 May 2010.
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Last modified: Thu May 6 21:20:07 2010
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