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What Is Oracle Exadata?

Oracle Exadata definition and main purposeIn our view, Oracle Exadata is a preconfigured combination of hardware and software that provides a platform for running Oracle Database (either version 11g Release 2 or version 12c Release 1 as of this writing). Since the Exadata Database Machine includes a storage subsystem, different software has been developed to run at the storage layer. This has allowed Oracle product development to do some things that are just not possible on other platforms. In fact, Exadata really began its life as a storage system. If you talk to people involved in the development of the product, you will commonly hear them refer the storage component as Exadata or SAGE (Storage Appliance for the Grid Environment), which was the code name for the project.

Oracle Exadata was originally designed to address the most common bottleneck with very large databases - the inability to move sufficiently large volumes of data from the disk storage system to the database server(s). Oracle has built its business by providing very fast access to data, primarily through the use of intelligent caching technology. As the sizes of databases began to outstrip the ability to cache data effectively using these techniques, Oracle began to look at ways to eliminate the bottleneck between the storage tier and the database tier. The solution the developers came up with was a combination of hardware and software. If you think about it, there are two approaches to minimize this bottleneck. The first is to make the pipe between the database and storage bigger. While there are many components involved and it’s a bit of an oversimplification, you can think of InfiniBand as that bigger pipe. The second way to minimize the bottleneck is to reduce the amount of data that needs to be transferred. This they did with Smart Scans. The combination of the two has provided a very successful solution to the problem. But make no mistake - reducing the volume of data flowing between the tiers via Smart Scan is the golden goose.

In this introductory chapter, we will review the components that make up Exadata, both hardware and software. We will also discuss how the parts fit together (the architecture). In addition, we will talk about how the database servers talk to the storage servers. This is handled very differently than on other platforms, so we will spend a fair amount of time covering that topic. We will also provide some historical context. By the end of the chapter, you should have a pretty good feel for how all the pieces fit together and a basic understanding of how Exadata works. The rest of the book will provide the details to fill out the skeleton that is built in this article.


An Overview of Exadata

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes. Figure 1 shows a very high-level view of the parts that make up the Exadata Database Machine.

 High-level Exadata components

Figure 1. High-level Exadata components

When considering Exadata, it is helpful to divide the entire system mentally into two parts, the storage layer and the database layer. The layers are connected via an InfiniBand network. InfiniBand provides a low-latency, high-throughput switched fabric communications link. Redundancy is provided through multiple switches and links. The database layer is made up of multiple Sun servers running standard Oracle 11g or 12c software. The servers are generally configured in one or more Real Application Clusters (RAC), although RAC is not actually required. The database servers use Automatic Storage Management (ASM) to access the storage. ASM is required even if the databases are not configured to use RAC. The storage layer also consists of multiple Sun x86 servers. Each storage server contains 12 disk drives or 8 flash drives and runs the Oracle storage server software (cellsrv). Communication between the layers is accomplished via iDB, which is a network-based protocol that is implemented using InfiniBand. iDB is used to send requests for data along with metadata about the request (including predicates) to cellsrv. In certain situations, cellsrv is able to use the metadata to process the data before sending results back to the database layer. When cellsrv is able to do this, it is called a Smart Scan and generally results in a significant decrease in the volume of data that needs to be transmitted back to the database layer. When Smart Scans are not possible, cellsrv returns the entire Oracle block(s). Note that iDB uses the RDS protocol, which is a low-latency, InfiniBand-specific protocol. In certain cases, the Oracle software can set up remote direct memory access (RDMA) over RDS, which bypasses doing system calls to accomplish low-latency, process-to-process communication across the InfiniBand network.


History of Exadata

Exadata has undergone a number of significant changes since its initial release in late 2008. In fact, one of the more difficult parts of writing this book has been keeping up with the changes in the platform during the project. Following is a brief review of the product’s lineage and how it has changed over time:

  • V1: The first Exadata was released in late 2008. It was labeled as V1 and was a combination of HP hardware and Oracle software. The architecture was similar to the current X5 version, with the exception of Flash, which was added to the V2 version. Exadata V1 was marketed exclusively as a data warehouse platform. The product was interesting but not widely adopted. It also suffered from issues resulting from overheating. The commonly heard description was that you could fry eggs on top of the cabinet. Many of the original V1 customers replaced their V1s with V2s or X2-2s.
  • V2: The second version of Exadata was announced at Open World in 2009. This version resulted from a partnership between Sun and Oracle. By the time the announcement was made, Oracle was already in the process of attempting to acquire Sun Microsystems. Many of the components were upgraded to bigger or faster versions, but the biggest difference was the addition of a significant amount of solid state-based storage. The storage cells were enhanced with 384G of Exadata Smart Flash Cache. The software was also enhanced to take advantage of the new cache. This addition allowed Oracle to market the platform as more than a Data Warehouse platform, opening up a significantly larger market.
  • X2: The third edition of Exadata, announced at Oracle Open World in 2010, was named the X2. Actually, there were two distinct versions of the X2. The X2-2 followed the same basic blueprint as the V2, with up to eight dual-socket database servers. The CPUs were upgraded to hex-core models, where the V2s had used quad-core CPUs. The other X2 model was named the X2-8. It broke the small 1U database server model by introducing larger database servers with 8×8 core CPUs and a large 1TB memory footprint. The X2-8 was marketed as a more robust platform for large OLTP or mixed workload systems due primarily to the larger number of CPU cores and the larger memory footprint. In 2011, Oracle changed the hardware in the X2-8 to 8x10-core CPUs and 2TB of memory per node. For customers that needed additional storage, storage expansion racks (racks full of storage servers) were introduced. In January 2012, Oracle increased the size of the high-capacity disks from 2TB to 3TB.
  • X3: In 2012, Oracle announced the Exadata X3. The X3 was the natural progression of the hardware included in the X2 series. Compute node updates included eight-core Intel Sandy Bridge CPUs and increased memory, up to 256GB per server (although it originally was equipped with 128GB per server for a short time). Storage servers saw upgrades to CPUs and memory, and flash storage increased to 1.6TB per server. The X3-2 family also introduced a new size—the eighth rack. X3-8 racks saw the same improvements in the storage servers, but the compute nodes in X3-8 racks are the same as their X2-8 counterparts.
  • X4: Oracle released the Exadata X4 in 2013. It followed the traditional new features: processing increased to 2x12 core CPUs, the ability to upgrade to 512GB of memory in a compute node was added, and flash and disk storage increased. The X4-2 also saw a new model of high-capacity disk, trading out the 600GB, 15,000 RPM disks for 1.2TB, 10,000 RPM disks. These disks were a smaller form factor (2.5” vs 3.5”). The other notable change with the X4-2 was the introduction of an active/active InfiniBand network connection. On the X4-2, Oracle broke the bonded connection and utilized each InfiniBand port independently. This allowed for increased throughput across the InfiniBand fabric.
  • X5: In early 2015, Oracle announced the sixth generation of Exadata, the X5-2. The X5-2 was a dramatic change in the platform, removing the high-performance disk option in favor of an all-flash, NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) model. High-capacity disk sizes were not changed, leaving them at 4TB per disk. Once again, the size of the flash cards doubled, this time to 6.4TB per storage server. Memory stayed consistent with a base of 256GB, upgradeable to 768GB, and the core count increased to 18 cores per socket. Finally, the requirement to purchase racks in predefined sizes was removed. The X5-2 rack could be purchased with any configuration required—a base rack begins with two compute nodes and three storage servers. Beyond that, any combination of compute and storage servers can be used within the rack. This removed discussions around Exadata configurations being “balanced” based on the workload. As was seen by many deployments before the X5, every workload is a little bit different and has different needs for compute and storage.



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