That time Larry Ellison allegedly tried to have a professor fired for benchmarking Oracle

In 1983, at the University of Wisconsin, Dina Bitton, David DeWitt, and Carolyn Turbyfill created a database benchmarking framework. Some of their resulted included (lower is better):

Join without indices

system joinAselB joinABprime joinCselAselB
U-INGRES 10.2 9.6 9.4
C-INGRES 1.8 2.6 2.1
ORACLE > 300 > 300 > 300
IDMnodac > 300 > 300 > 300
IDMdac > 300 > 300 > 300
DIRECT 10.2 9.5 5.6
SQL/DS 2.2 2.2 2.1

Join with indices, primary (clustered) index

system joinAselB joinABprime joinCselAselB
U-INGRES 2.11 1.66 9.07
C-INGRES 0.9 1.71 1.07
ORACLE 7.94 7.22 13.78
IDMnodac 0.52 0.59 0.74
IDMdac 0.39 0.46 0.58
DIRECT 10.21 9.47 5.62
SQL/DS 0.92 1.08 1.33

Join with indicies, secondary (non-clustered) index

system joinAselB joinABprime joinCselAselB
U-INGRES 4.49 3.24 10.55
C-INGRES 1.97 1.80 2.41
ORACLE 8.52 9.39 18.85
IDMnodac 1.41 0.81 1.81
IDMdac 1.19 0.59 1.47
DIRECT 10.21 9.47 5.62
SQL/DS 1.62 1.4 2.66

Projection (duplicate tuples removed)

system 100/10000 1000/10000
U-INGRES 64.6 236.8
C-INGRES 26.4 132.0
ORACLE 828.5 199.8
IDMnodac 29.3 122.2
IDMdac 22.3 68.1
DIRECT 2068.0 58.0
SQL/DS 28.8 28.0

Aggregate without indicies

system MIN scalar MIN agg fn 100 parts SUM agg fun 100 parts
U-INGRES 40.2 176.7 174.2
C-INGRES 34.0 495.0 484.4
ORACLE 145.8 1449.2 1487.5
IDMnodac 32.0 65.0 67.5
IDMdac 21.2 38.2 38.2
DIRECT 41.0 227.0 229.5
SQL/DS 19.8 22.5 23.5

Aggregate with indicies

system MIN scalar MIN agg fn 100 parts SUM agg fun 100 parts
U-INGRES 41.2 186.5 182.2
C-INGRES 37.2 242.2 254.0
ORACLE 160.5 1470.2 1446.5
IDMnodac 27.0 65.0 66.8
IDMdac 21.2 38.0 38.0
DIRECT 41.0 227.0 229.5
SQL/DS 8.5 22.8 23.8

Selection without indicies

system 100/10000 1000/10000
U-INGRES 53.2 64.4
C-INGRES 38.4 53.9
ORACLE 194.2 230.6
IDMnodac 31.7 33.4
IDMdac 21.6 23.6
DIRECT 43.0 46.0
SQL/DS 15.1 38.1

Selection with indicies

system 100/10000 clustered 100/10000 clustered 100/10000 1000/10000
U-INGRES 7.7 27.8 59.2 78.9
C-INGRES 3.9 18.9 11.4 54.3
ORACLE 16.3 130.0 17.3 129.2
IDMnodac 2.0 9.9 3.8 27.6
IDMdac 1.5 8.7 3.3 23.7
DIRECT 43.0 46.0 43.0 46.0
SQL/DS 3.2 27.5 12.3 39.2

In case you’re familiar with the database universe as of 1983, at the time, INGRES was a research project by Stonebreaker and Wong at Berkeley that had been commercialized. C-INGRES is the commercial versionn and U-INGRES is the university version. IDM* are the IDM/500 database machine, the first widely used commercial database machine; dac is with a “database accelerator” and nodac is without. DIRECT was a research project in database machines that was started by DeWitt in 1977.

In Bitton et al.’s work, Oracle’s performance stood out as unusually poor.

Larry Ellison wasn’t happy with the results and it’s said that he tried to have DeWitt fired. Given how difficult it is to fire professors when there’s actual misconduct, the probability of Ellison sucessfully getting someone fired for doing legitimate research in their field was pretty much zero. It’s also said that, after DeWitt’s non-firing, Larry banned Oracle from hiring Wisconsin grads and Oracle added a term to their EULA forbidding the publication of benchmarks. Over the years, many major commercial database vendors added a license clause that made benchmarking their database illegal.

Today, Oracle hires from Wisconsin, but Oracle still forbids benchmarking of their database. Oracle’s shockingly poor performance and Larry Ellison’s response have gone down in history; anti-benchmarking clauses are now often knowing as “DeWitt Clauses”, and they’ve spread from databases to all software, from compilers to cloud offerings1.

Meanwhile, Bitcoin users have created anonymous markets for assassinations – users can put money into a pot that gets paid out to the assassin who kills a particular target.

Anonymous assassination markets appear to be a joke, but how about anonymous markets for benchmarks? People who want to know what kind of performance a database offers under a certain workload puts money into a pot that gets paid out to whoever runs the benchmark.

With things as they are now, you often see comments and blog posts about how someone was using postgres until management made them switch to “some commercial database” which had much worse performance and it’s hard to tell if the terrible database was Oracle, MS SQL server, or perhaps another database.

If we look at major commercial databases today, two out of the three big names in commericial databases forbid publishing benchmarks. Microsoft’s SQL server eula says:

You may not disclose the results of any benchmark test … without Microsoft’s prior written approval

Oracle says:

You may not disclose results of any Program benchmark tests without Oracle’s prior consent

IBM is notable for actually allowing benchmarks:

Licensee may disclose the results of any benchmark test of the Program or its subcomponents to any third party provided that Licensee (A) publicly discloses the complete methodology used in the benchmark test (for example, hardware and software setup, installation procedure and configuration files), (B) performs Licensee’s benchmark testing running the Program in its Specified Operating Environment using the latest applicable updates, patches and fixes available for the Program from IBM or third parties that provide IBM products (“Third Parties”), and © follows any and all performance tuning and “best practices” guidance available in the Program’s documentation and on IBM’s support web sites for the Program…

This gives people ammunition for a meta-argument that IBM probably delivers better performance than either Oracle or Microsoft, since they’re the only company that’s not scared of people publishing benchmark results, but it would be nice if we had actual numbers.

  1. There’s at least one cloud service that disallows not only publishing benchmarks, but even “competitive benchmarking”, running benchmarks to see how well the competition does. As a result, there’s a product I’m told I shouldn’t use to avoid even the appearance of impropriety because I work in an office with people who work on cloud related infrastructure.

    An example of a clause like this is the following term in the Salesforce agreement:

    You may not access the Services for purposes of monitoring their availability, performance or functionality, or for any other benchmarking or competitive purposes.

    If you ever wondered why uptime “benchmarking” services like cloudharmony don’t include Salesforce, this is probably why. You will sometimes see speculation that Salesforce and other companies with these terms know that their service is so poor that it would be worse to have public benchmarks than to have it be known that they’re afraid of public benchmarks.