Preaching revolution, practising evolution

When, on June 16, 1992, Oracle released version 7 of its flagship database software, it had spent two years in the throes of staggering corporate trauma. This week, as Oracle8 gets the global launch hoopla, it is Oracle's mouthiest competitor, Informix, which is mired in a bog of class action suits and badly missed revenue targets.

When, on June 16, 1992, Oracle released version 7 of its flagship database software, it had spent two years in the throes of staggering corporate trauma.

Almost all its top management had been cleaned out — leaving only chairman and founder Larry Ellison — millions had been paid to settle shareholders’ suits and Oracle was crawling back from an 80% fall in its market capitalisation. It needed a Really Great Product. And, happily, Oracle7 fitted the bill.

This week, as Oracle8 gets the global launch hoopla, it is Oracle’s mouthiest competitor, Informix, which is mired in a bog of class action suits and badly missed revenue targets. Oracle, poised at the peak of its product cycle and already the market leader, actually expects to pick up as much as five points of database market share this year — mainly at the expense of Informix and Sybase.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any questions about Oracle8 and the strategy Oracle professes to have built around it. Everything from the depth of Oracle8’s highly-touted object support to the viability of the Network Computing Architecture, of which the database is a lynchpin, has been the subject of debate.

But Ellison, like Oscar Wilde, is a man for whom the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Thus, right at the end of a recent day-long press briefing at Redwood Shores, he almost nonchalantly lowered the boom on Sedona, Oracle’s long-awaited object-based develop--ment platform.

Perhaps, in staging what amounted to a public execution of what had been touted as a flagship product, Ellison was demonstrating that Oracle’s internal culture was as cut-throat as ever. The thing is, it doesn’t really matter. If it has been preaching revolution, Oracle has, with Oracle8, been practising evolution.

The Oracle customer base seems certain to welcome what the company is billing as industry-leading (if overdue) implementations of table partitioning and parallelism. Ditto for query performance (four times faster than Oracle 7.3), impressive scalability (up to tens of terabytes and tens of thousands of users) and advanced message queueing features.

A solid list of beta sites — including NASDAQ, Sun Micro-systems and the Union Bank of Switzerland — has also produced some good stories. Sun’s Mark Tolliver says the partitioning features are “playing out nicely — allowing us to do partial migrations of very large databases.”

NASD, the organisation which runs the NASDAQ stock market, says it will “aggressively deploy” Oracle8, largely on the basis of “very favourable results” with Oracle8’s housekeeping features — partitioning, parallel execution, incremental backup and replication.

Maintaining the business-as-usual tone, server technologies VP Jerry Held told the press briefing, “this is the easiest migration we’ve ever had” and while server marketing VP Mark Jarvis ran a real-time install of Oracle8, Held declared, in a wry dig at Microsoft, that “this is low cost and ease of use day at Oracle.

“Frankly, this migration is simpler than upgrading Word, Excel, or Powerpoint, where all the data formats are different. That’s because the data doesn’t change — only some of the cataloguing information. I don’t think Micro-soft is a data-centric company in the same way we are.”

The dig at Micro-soft was no accident. Although, strictly speak-ing, IBM is number two in the database market, Microsoft has been anointed as the competitor Oracle will focus on now that Informix is stumbling.

Ellison played up Microsoft’s “complete lack of confidence” in SQL Server for data-base mes-saging. He was at pains to sell Oracle8 as a “single, universal repository” for information, and its mes-saging features in conjunction with InterOffice.

“Microsoft has allowed people to believe that messaging is about sending someone an email saying ‘let’s meet for lunch’,” said Ellison.

“That’s not what messaging is about. Messaging is absolutely key to electronic commerce.”

Away from the chest-beating, the sector likely to feel least positive about Oracle8 is the developer community. Developers waited two years for Sedona, and its advertised ability to share objects across applications and between tools.

They also arguably expected a more truly object-oriented Oracle8.

Object-oriented (OO) database analyst Mitch Kramer says Oracle is now “starting to integrate object technologies in a reasonably practical way,” but doesn’t go along with Oracle’s claims to have overtaken Informix or specialist OO database companies.

For major customers, this is less of a worry.

The Union Bank of Switzerland’s Markus Helg says his organisation is already making good use of partitioning, but may yet be two years away from using the object features in Oracle8. Other large users — and that includes 90% or Fortune 500 companies — may be in similar mood.

Helg himself told the press briefing that “the relational model will be around for a long, long time. Ten years from now, people will still be doing new things with relational databases. It will still probably be the major part of the market.”

It might all be summed up in the riotously unglamorous slogan Oracle is pitching to its user base for Oracle8: “Lower cost, all your users, all your data, faster.” Oracle has absolutely no cause to bet the farm on a leap to object technology — or to any other radically different paradigm. Even the Network Computer (NC).

Since Ellison first proposed the NC 18 months ago, the idea has taken on a momentum of its own — to the point where, as Ellison pointed out, Microsoft itself now has four different takes on the concept.

This is despite Oracle’s worrying failure to join the dots by offering CORBA support (a key to the NCA) in its own data mart suites, released only last month, or to integrate Java into the first release of Oracle8.

Carol Mills, a spokesperson for Oracle’s largest partner, Hewlett-Packard, backs the NCA, comparing it to HP’s Extended Enterprise.

“I expect those to align very nicely. That said, I would expect the move to NCA to be a bigger change than migrating to Oracle8.”

She will not be alone in that expectation. Oracle officially starts pleasing its customer base this week — with a simultaneous global launch or Oracle8, and the first of a planned 20,000 hours of training by 300 analysts.

This is likely to accelerate a trend which saw Oracle’s services revenue overhaul its product revenue last quarter.

Oracle might just grab that extra 5% of market share, and it might just stay level with Microsoft on the NT platform.

But the revolution that Larry Ellison says his corcoporation has reshaped itself for? That may take quite a bit longer.

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