Oracle has launched a high-end database and storage system, co-developed with Sun Microsystems, the companies' first joint product since Oracle's proposed acquisition of Sun was announced.

The Exadata Database Machine Version 2, it combines Intel-based servers and other Sun hardware with Oracle's database and storage management software in a rack-based system optimised for enterprise data warehousing and high-speed online transaction processing (OLTP).

The system uses an unusually large amount of flash memory - up to 5TB in a fully loaded rack - to achieve high levels of OLTP performance, said Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. The system uses Linux, rather than Sun Solaris, and Intel-type processors, rather than Sun's Ultrasparc T2 chips, as some had expected. But Oracle has pledged to support Sun's Sparc platform in the future.

The new product is a follow-on to a similar Exadata system that Oracle developed last year with HP. Both systems combine database servers, storage servers and networking in a rack-based system preconfigured with Oracle's software.

The first Exadata system was for data warehousing only, Ellison said, while Exadata 2 is for both data warehousing and online transaction processing. "Exadata Version 1 was the world's fastest machine for data warehousing applications," he said. "Exadata Version 2 is twice as fast as Exadata Version 1 for data warehousing, and it's the only database machine that runs OLTP applications."

The first version was based on HP's Intel-based ProLiant G5 servers, while the new machine uses Sun Fire X4275 servers with Intel's quad-core Nehalem processors. It also uses a faster memory type, DDR3, and faster disk and InfiniBand components, Ellison said, explaining the performance boost over the first Exadata.

But the main advance is a new flash-based memory system from Sun that is used in the storage servers. Called FlashFire, it packs four flash accelerator cards into each storage server, each with a capacity of 96GB. A fully loaded rack with eight storage servers has 5TB of flash memory, as well as 100TB of SAS disk capacity or 336TB of SATA disk capacity, Ellison said.

"We have a huge, fast flash cache built into our storage servers," Ellison said. "These are not flash disks -- make no mistake, these are not flash disks. This is a smart memory hierarchy made up of DRAM in our database servers and flash in our storage servers, with very sophisticated algorithms. This is a very smart memory hierarchy where the Oracle software manages that memory extremely efficiently, much faster than flash disk."

The use of flash memory and InfiniBand allows the system to perform 1 million I/O operations per second, according to Ellison. "We can move data much more rapidly than any other computer in the world," he claimed.

All that speed comes at a price. A full rack configuration, with eight database servers and 14 storage servers, starts at US$1.15 million (£700,000) for the database hardware alone, according to a price list. The Oracle database software and Exadata Storage Software are extra, as are the storage hardware and installation fees.

The system is also offered in half-rack, quarter-rack and single-server configurations, however. The entry product starts at $115,000 for the database server hardware.

"I think it's incredible the amount of flash they're using," said Dan Olds, principal analyst with Gabriel Consulting Group. "It's not quite an in-memory database, but it's not far off it. Couple that with the Nehalem processors and the InfiniBand, and that's where the OLTP performance is coming from."

Terms of use are "quite restrictive, though," he noted, pointing to an Oracle FAQ. Exadata customers have to use the latest Enterprise Edition of Oracle Database, version 11.2 or higher, and the system can't be modified in any way.

Customers also can't run any other software on the machines, he noted. "They didn't really talk about whether you can do OLTP and data warehousing at the same time," Olds said. "As these machines get bigger and bigger, there are fewer and fewer customers that can use them for just one workload."

In some ways the event was notable for what Ellison did not say. With Sun customers facing uncertainty about the future of their platforms, rivals HP and IBM have been courting Sun customers away with aggressive migration programs. Oracle has been trying to contain the damage with newspaper ads saying it will invest more in Sun's Sparc than Sun does.

Although both companies stressed that this product was the fruit of a long-standing partnership, we could wait a bit longer for the acquisition to be completed. Oracle has won approval for its Sun acquisition from US regulators, but the European Commission has held up the deal, possibly until January. The Commission says it's concerned that Oracle's ownership of Sun's MySQL database could harm competition in the open-source software market.

While most analysts expect the deal to go through, the uncertainty has been hammering Sun's server business. Its server revenue plunged 37 percent in the second quarter, a much greater decline than for any of its main rivals, according to IDC.