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bullionDB: cleaning up costly legacy database sprawl

Recent surveys show that most companies still spend over two thirds of their IT budgets on “keep-the-lights-on” functions, with less than one third left for new initiatives.

To meet urgent business line demands despite flat budgets, IT departments must look for ways to reduce the cost of ownership of existing systems.

Database software is a particularly sore point for IT managers, due not only to the growing budgetary impact but also to the time consuming and (frankly) stressful renegotiation meetings between thoroughly entrenched vendors – including the omnipresent market leader - and their no less thoroughly locked-in customers.

While no one has the ideal “silver bullet” for this unhappy situation, Bull thinks it can make a difference with the recent announcement of bullionDB, an Open Source database appliance.


Launched in February of this year, bullionDB is a database appliance built on its high performance bullion servers packaged with the PostgreSQL Open Source database system. The appliance also includes a single point of administration for all new or migrated databases.

According to the company, bullionDB is “an appliance designed to help organizations modernize their databases, while guaranteeing optimum Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).”

In addition, the company proposes its “Migration Factory”, a set of specialist tools and services to enable “secure and rapid database migrations, principally from Oracle”, together with “One Stop Support”.


It is undeniable that the costs of databases and related infrastructure have become a big part of most IT budgets. Big Data may well be the next big challenge, but the costly and complex sprawl of legacy databases in many organizations is already a big and challenging problem.

In this context, the announcement of the bullionDB appliance represents a value proposition that should be attractive to a good number of customers.

Complex and costly database sprawl

Medium to large size organizations have hundreds (and for the largest even thousands) of relational databases for “core” functions such as ERP or HR, legacy departmental applications and ”edge” BI reporting.

In addition, most such organizations use multiple DB platforms (typically led by Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server and IBM DB2), often with different versions of the same platform and a variety of different management tools.

Database administration skills

A major result of this situation is the increasing complexity and costs of database administration, a discipline requiring a wide range of high level skills especially for sophisticated products such as Oracle and DB2.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “employment of database administrators is projected to grow 15 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations” in the United States. Finding these skills can be a big problem for many organizations.

Complex and fragmented IT operations

For IT Operations, the growing number and assortment of database systems, together with growing storage volumes and a wide variety of technologies for high availability and service continuity, can raise complexity to increasingly unmanageable levels. Operations become fragmented and specific to different platform or tools, all of which implies the need for a multiplicity of skills and higher HR costs.

Relentlessly increasing database software costs

Given the “scale out” architecture of most X86 server infrastructures, an enterprise with an abundance of databases, some of them very big, will need a considerable number of DB software licenses and annual maintenance fees.

How many licenses – and how much cash - depends on the licensing conditions, which in some cases – such as Oracle - are famously complicated and far from transparent. Licensing complexity is a real problem for IT, given Oracle’s well-deserved reputation for aggressive audits, sometimes leading to millions of dollars in compliance penalties for large users.

The real problem, however, is not licensing (which could change) but rather the proprietary “lock-in” that gives big vendors inordinate pricing and contracting power over customers, a power that they do not hesitate to use and – as some unhappy customers say - abuse.

The bullionDB appliance

Bull positions bullionDB as an appliance for “database modernization” intended to help customers get better control over legacy database sprawl, with a solution that bundles hardware, software and “one stop” support, plus optional migration services.

A “scale up” X86 consolidation platform

The underlying platforms for bullionDB are drawn from the company’s line of enterprise class bullion servers. Launched in 2010, bullion has been a commercial success as sales have doubled each year, with over half outside of the company’s French home market.

While “scale out” architectures have become the “conventional IT wisdom”, especially for application servers, there is a lot to be said for “scale up” database servers that can provide large single addressable memory spaces and very high processing power, to operate sophisticated database engines with large numbers of concurrent users.

The platform design reflects Bull’s mainframe heritage but also its expertise in High Performance Computing (HPC). Both bullion and the bullx HPC lines are built on the same MESCA architecture - with its crossbar switch for very low latency inter-processor communication – to get top performance out of successive generations of high end Intel Xeon chips.

Interestingly enough, Bull positions bullion as “natively virtualized”, specifically designed - in close cooperation with VMware - for heavy duty virtualized workloads. It can support hundreds of VMs as well as several “monster VMs” with enough power and memory to enable the virtualization of very large databases.

These sorts of design choices – together with the company’s recognized skill in performance tuning - make bullion an entirely reasonable choice as a platform for database consolidation.

PostgreSQL: an open source alternative

PostgreSQL is a well-established relational database system that is supported by a large Open Source community. Users include a variety of enterprises and government authorities around the world. Numerous agencies of the US federal government, including especially the Department of Defense, use the system (and other Open Source technologies) for highly mission critical applications.

Although not as ubiquitous as MySQL in Web applications, PostgreSQL has achieved widespread recognition as a low cost but feature rich alternative to sophisticated proprietary systems such as Oracle, for a variety of workloads including business critical production.

While some IT organizations have lingering concerns about the viability of the Open Source model, Open Source infrastructure software has already achieved a respectable level of acceptance. Roughly speaking, Open Source represents around 30% of the market, trending upwards due to its rapid adoption in domains such as the cloud, mobility and Big Data.

A major driving force has been the emergence of Open Source providers with sustainable economic models, typically based on the provision of customer support and other services. Providers also manage the distributions, with some proposing both a free “community” version and a payable “enterprise” version including proprietary extensions.

With bullionDB, the company has opted for the “no lock-in” community version while charging for “One Stop Support” of databases and the server platform. The model, however, is not Open Source pure play, since Bull is selling a vertically integrated solution that includes the database server platform and the single point management portal.

Migration: the biggest issue

Migration is something that IT departments usually dislike, the key concerns being timelines and costs, together with technical and organizational risks. In response to these concerns, Bull offers specialized consulting services to help its customer define a reasonable migration perimeter, as well as its “Migration Factory” tools and services, since migration is seldom the best use of internal IT resources.

Technically speaking, PostgreSQL is generally compatible with Oracle, but much depends on the application portfolio and the specific development practices. Some applications stick with standard SQL and common Oracle functions, while others rely upon very specific Oracle extensions. As a result, some migrations essentially mean converting the databases while others require more or less extensive intervention at the application level. Retesting is of course inevitable.

According to some surveys, many PostgreSQL users have decided to leave in place their existing proprietary database systems for their most mission critical applications while migrating less critical databases (the “low hanging fruit”) and standardizing on the system for new OLTP applications. In some (albeit more rare) cases, IT has opted for a progressive but complete migration, the intention being to phase out entirely expensive proprietary databases.

Defining the right database perimeter for an Open Source solution such as bullionDB involves cost, benefit and risk trade-offs that are specific to each user organization. Loosely speaking, the key decision metric parameter might be described as “risk adjusted TCO”.

Postscript: Impact of the acquisition by Atos

The preceding analysis of BullionDB was prepared before the announcement on May 26, 2014, of the acquisition of Bull by French IT services company Atos.

Overall, this is a positive development for the bullionDB solution. Operating as an Atos company, according to both companies, Bull will retain responsibility (among other technologies) for bullion servers and appliances, providing the power needed in strategic domains such as the Cloud and Big Data. Atos will bring a new level of scale in services and open many new sales opportunities around the world.

Most importantly, for large customers, the combination of Bull with the much larger Atos should considerably reinforce the “credibility” of bullionDB as a strategic choice for legacy database consolidation.


Legacy database sprawl is a very real and very expensive problem for IT departments. With bullionDB, the French company may not have a “sliver bullet” but it does have a value proposition that should be attractive to a good many customers.

At the very least, putting into place a credible Open Source alternative to entrenched DB vendors will considerably reinforce the bargaining power of customers.

Wednesday, June 4th 2014
Duquesne Advisory
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Duquesne Advisory

Duquesne Advisory is a European firm, dedicated to researching, understanding and advising clients worldwide on opportunities and trends in Information and Communications technology.


Duquesne Advisory delivers in-depth analyses of Information and Communications Technologies, their implementations and their markets. Research is based on critical observation of the market by the analysts and their on-going contacts with the vendor community, together with hands-on, practical experience in consulting engagements.


The analysts of Duquesne Advisory leverage the Firm’s ongoing market and technology research to undertake high added value consulting engagements for both ICT users and ICT providers. Focused on client service, their approach is rigorous and methodical, and at the same time pragmatic and operational.