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Oracle Hardware Upgrade Tips

Oracle Database Tips by Donald BurlesonNovember 5, 2015

Update:  Please see these updates to Oracle hardware architectures and the costs and benefits of server deconsolidation.

The rapid pace of improving hardware technology has an important influence on the landscape of the IT manager.  Hardware depreciates at an astonishing rate, and the CIO must understand how to maximize their hardware investment in the volatile world of Oracle database technology.

This article will examine the realities of hardware advances and show how the Oracle systems manager can make an intelligent decision about when to move to faster hardware platforms.

Your worthless machine room

Oracle system managers are often surprised to learn that their multi-million dollar investment five years ago is almost worthless. While the IRS tax rules allow for rapid depreciation of computer hardware, the real depreciation is often greater than the depreciable rate, and the manager must face the reality that their 2 acre machine room is practically worthless. Just look at the radical changes in the past few decades:

  • 1960s - Only the largest of corporations could afford their own data processing center, and all small- to mid-sized companies had to rent CPU cycles from a data center in order to automate their business processes.
  • 1970s - Small UNIX-based servers existed, such as the PDP-11. However, they were considered far too unreliable to be used for a commercial application.
  • 1980s - In 1981, the first commercial personal computer (PC) was unveiled, and practically overnight, computing power was in the hands of the masses. Software vendors rushed to develop useful products that would run on a PC, and the introduction of VisiCalc heralded the first business application outside the mainframe domain.
  • 1990s - Oracle appears and relational databases dominate the IT market. Large shops have hundreds of small UNIX-based computers for their Oracle databases.
  • 2000s - Monolithic servers reappear, and Oracle shops undertake a massive server consolidation. By 2015, servers with 256 processors run hundreds of Oracle instances.
  • 2010s - Disk becomes obsolete, and all Oracle database are solid-state. Hardware costs fall so much that 70 percent of the IT budget is spent on programmers and DBAs.

Many IT managers find that the cost of removing ancient 5 year old hardware from their data center outweighs the residual value.  See my notes on evaluating an Oracle hardware environment.


The bad news

Hardware depreciates rapidly, regardless of use, and it's not uncommon to see a 95% depreciation every five years. 

In addition to declining costs we also see an exponential improvement in hardware speed:

  • RAM - Historically, RAM I/O bandwidth grows one bit every 18 months, making the first decade of the 21st Century the era of 64-bit RAM technology

  • CPU - Because CPU speed continues to outpace memory speed, RAM subsystems must be localized to keep the CPUs running at full capacity

  • Disk - Disk storage costs fall 10x every year, and I/O bandwidth capacity doubles every ten years.

Many Oracle shops are lucky if they can find someone to rip-out the aging servers in return for the hardware. Many servers gain new life on eBay, where you can peruse a fine selection of new and obsolete servers

That old Sun E25k that cost over $200k a few years ago can now be found on eBay for under $10k!


The good news - better throughput

The good news is that the Oracle system manager will see several real benefits from an upgrade to brand-new Oracle hardware:

  • Faster throughout - Today's CPU's are far faster than their 5-year old predecessors, and 64-bit servers can be a Godsend to shops that suffer from RAM constraints.  See my notes here on the benefits of 32-bit vs. 64-bit processing for Oracle servers.  Also, solid-state disk (SSD) is becoming increasingly affordable, leading some shops to abandon mechanical platters in favor of solid-state Oracle storage.

  • More real estate - The CIO will gain significant real estate on their machine room floor when acres of individual minicomputers are replaced with compact grid server blades or large monolithic servers.  Instead of the old-fashioned 'one database, one server' approach, we now see servers that that can support dozens of applications.  See my notes here for the benefits from Oracle server consolidation.


When do I upgrade my Oracle hardware?

By quantifying the intangible costs of managing obsolete hardware, the Oracle systems manager can predict the increasing costs.  These intangibles include the lost work time from slow response time, the increased IT costs from manual intervention, and the lost goodwill from customers who experience delays.

Oracle systems managers are reluctant to spend on human intervention

Once quantified, finding the date to upgrade the hardware becomes a classic cost-benefit analysis, with the CIO weighing the relative costs in the 'maintain vs. upgrade' decision.

In sum, the costs of upgrading to new hardware are the same as an initial acquisition, giving management a huge incentive to squeeze every possible hardware resource.  See my notes on Oracle performance, hardware & RAM tuning optimization

Postponing a Oracle hardware upgrade

When faced with a one-time expenditure of millions of dollars, many Oracle systems managers seek short-term strategies to defer this cost.  Considering that the opportunity cost of capital (at 10%), the manager can safely spend $100k per year in short-term 'band aids' to reduce the stress on their aging server.  For full details, see my book "Oracle Tuning: The Definitive Reference",

As we have seen, hardware costs fall rapidly while human costs remain relatively static.  This leads to a condition there the human costs of manual tuning activities outpaces the costs of faster hardware.  For example, shops which are I/O-bound can defer a server upgrade by buying super-fast solid-state disk arrays.  See my additional notes here on hardware-tuning for Oracle databases.


During initial system acquisition, the Oracle DBA performs the initial database tuning, using powerful global adjustments to optimize the database workload.  Holistic Oracle tuning grabs the 'low hanging fruit', and the Oracle manager makes a conscious decision to defer the labor-intensive Oracle tuning activities (e.g. tuning hundreds of individual SQL statements).

However, when face with a huge expenditure for a hardware upgrade, it can be economically feasible to have the DBA grab the 'high-hanging fruit', going after tuning activities with a smaller incremental benefit.  These might include:

  • Multiple blocksizes - Incurring the additional management overhead of employing multiple blocksizes can improve utilization for scarce RAM resources, providing between 5%-10%.  Oracle guru David Aldridge notes a test where is noted a 6% reduction with larger index blocksizes, a significant difference, especially to hardware stressed shops.
  • Marking a tablespace as read-only - You can mark Oracle tablespaces as read-only.  Real-world benchmark tests show that making a tablespace read-only produces a small but measurable benefit in response time.  While this benefit is not of interest to shops with an excess of computing power, it can postpone a hardware upgrade.
  • Task-level tuning - When obsolete hardware and increasing volume causes hardware stress, emergency DBA tuning techniques can be worthwhile. Oracle author Chris Lawson notes that nothing is off-limits when trying to squeeze more cycles out of an aging server environment, an approach he calls 'tuning as a life-or-death endeavor:

"Given my new motivation, all limits were off. I considered all kinds of crazy ideas" server changes, init.ora changes, disk changes, etc."

Lawson goes on to describe a creative solution to solve an acute RAM-related hardware problem:

"Since the bottleneck was mostly due to disk i/o, any improvement in disk access would directly affect the problem job. Since we knew the exact SQL, we could pre-run SQL at duplicated the "real" Sql that would shortly follow. That is, we would pre-cache many of the blocks that would shortly be needed.

  • Detailed SQL optimization - Provided that the global settings are optimized for your workload, the DBA can use techniques to identify 'exceptional' SQL for tuning.  For example, if the server is stressed with disk enqueues, the DBA can extract those SQL statements that incur the most disk activity.  The DBA can then undertake tuning to fetch the rows with the minimum amount of data buffer touches, using tools such as materialized views and specialized indexes.

To guarantee a smooth transition to new Oracle hardware, it's always advisable to consult Oracle experts who can demonstrate a proven track record of success.  There are many perils and pitfalls when we upgrade to new hardware, and I recommend avoiding any consultancy that does not publish the names, credential and experience of their staff.

Choosing your Oracle hardware upgrade support

The web is full of puffery and self-appointed Oracle experts, and the IT manager must be very careful.  Don't take any claims of "extensive experience" at face value, and always ask for real-world references when choosing expert Oracle support.  Many Oracle shops seek these credentials for an Oracle hardware upgrade consultant:

  • Trustworthiness - Make sure that your consultant has no fiduciary interests with hardware vendors and seek consultants who have been vetted, such as a Oracle expert with an active SECRET clearance.

  • Training - See "real" software engineers with degrees in electrical engineering and advanced study (masters degree) in software engineering.

  • Experience - Look for consultants who publish their resume's and offer real-world references.

Remember, not all "experience" is the same, and some Oracle professionals count at-home learning as work experience.  See my notes here on evaluating the credibility of Oracle experts on the web.


For me, I carefully vet all of my Oracle upgrade experts, and my clients like to use Oracle certified professional experts who are also software engineers.



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Note: This Oracle documentation was created as a support and Oracle training reference for use by our DBA performance tuning consulting professionals.  Feel free to ask questions on our Oracle forum.

Verify experience! Anyone considering using the services of an Oracle support expert should independently investigate their credentials and experience, and not rely on advertisements and self-proclaimed expertise. All legitimate Oracle experts publish their Oracle qualifications.

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