ORACLEWORLD - Oracle flexes life science biceps

FRAMINGHAM (09/15/2003) - Last week's OracleWorld, the company's annual love poem to itself in San Francisco, featured a full day of sessions organized for the company's life science users. The sessions were designed to showcase the company's major update of its database, Oracle 10g, due by the end of the year. Bio-IT Worldwill analyze the new database in future coverage.

But the life science sessions also served as a bravura demonstration of Oracle Corp.'s unique position in the age of terabyte scientific datasets. Whether in academia or industry, peddling software or instruments, Oracle's partners and fellow vendors touted its reliability, scalability, security, and other traits that they said were available in no other database.

At the end of the life science day, almost as an afterthought, more than a half a dozen longtime Oracle partners gave eight-minute presentations in the style of those for venture capitalists -- even though few members of that species were in attendance.

Steve Potts, a product manager at Accelrys, batted first and hit a home run, describing well-matched tools and data in well-known products selling or managing genetic sequences, chemical ligands, and high-throughput data. Potts is eagerly awaiting the new database. "I can't wait to add some of the features that are in 10g to our products," he said.

Storing 400 gigabytes of data from 32 different species' genomes, Potts said, Accelrys could not be delivering its content or analytical services without Oracle. He said linking XML tags and the preferred weapon of database aficionados -- structured query language (SQL) commands -- is uniquely enabled within Oracle.

Next up: technical specialist Dan Shaffer of Agilent. He said his company's laboratory instruments were often destined to pump their data into Oracle databases, and that Agilent applications like ChemStation Plus and Cerity were designed to facilitate that. Cerity, a new product, is compliant with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 21 CFR Part 11 rules.

The goal of both applications, however, is to manage the prodigious quantities of data streaming out of Agilent's instruments in pharma and academia. "It allows us to manage data across multiple instruments, multiple labs," said Shaffer. "We came up with these (software) products to network them together, utilizing a database."

Another maker of life science equipment, Waters, also sent a representative to the Oracle meeting. The Oracle technology is embedded into a variety of the company's products. "It's a single, integrated, validated, database structure," said John Swallow, principal engineer. "It makes life real simple for us with the integration and we never have to explain why we use Oracle to anybody."

BergenShaw International's Jim Shaw noted that his company's process-optimization software is sold through Applied Biosystems for customers buying DNA sequencing and other equipment. Shaw began by quoting Charles Darwin: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

Shaw went on to say that saving precious molecular biological reagents and months of time requires high-throughput processes to be carefully considered. That's what his software does. Outdated reagents? "We'll be able to identify them for you before they affect your process in a negative way," said Shaw. "Every single one of our customers uses Oracle as their database in the life science environment."

Yike Guo, founder and CEO of the London-based InforSense, made essentially the same point, tracing the company's roots from three people out of Imperial College to its present 72 employees. "Our workflow now is seamlessly integrated with Oracle functions," Guo said.

Lim Teck Sin, another CEO, runs Singapore-based Kooprime. It's clear the company has never stumbled on a technology for drug discovery in which it does not consider itself adroit. Kooprime is working in high-throughput screening, in genomics, in proteomics, in preclinical tools, in epidemiological monitoring, in tissue registries. "We are focusing on the merger of medical informatics and bioinformatics," said Sin. "We always recommend Oracle because it is scalable and robust."

MDL, specializing in tools and data for medicinal chemists, also stepped to the podium to praise Oracle. "Oracle's more recent focus on life sciences has directly benefited MDL," said Linda Del Rey, noting that the two companies had collaborated to make MDL's proprietary content and the container in which it is stored work seamlessly together. "We've been working with and integrating with Oracle since 1989. We have a nice long history with Oracle and feel like we've grown up with Oracle in this industry."

Rosetta Biosoftware, the gene expression software company, has three products, all built to run on Oracle. "We like the scalability, robustness, and platform support of Oracle," said Jerry Zaborowski, director of sales at Rosetta, listing not only large customers that compete with Rosetta's parent company (drugmaker Merck) but major universities and research institutes in Europe and the U.S.

In a presentation that was quietly devastating to IBM's vision of federation -- uniting a variety of types of data from both internal and external sources -- Spotfire also extolled Oracle. "We are using Oracle as a federated database engine," said Dylan Cotter, an application consultant for Spotfire.

With 10,000 users at 500 customers in the petroleum, semiconductor, and pharmaceutical industries, Spotfire's software for data analysis and visualization was much on the minds of the audience at the Oracle event. That was because Oracle is building a variety of statistical, visualization, and analytical tools into its new database. The goal: to let customers leave their data in Oracle and never venture far for other applications or sources of data.

But Spotfire, from its presentation, appears to feel no heat from a potential rival. Presumably that is because the company thinks that its domain expertise will keep it a step ahead of Oracle's product developers and programmers. "Spotfire is about continuous data exploration and analysis," said Cotter. Basing Spotfire's DecisionSite tool on top of Oracle, he continued, lets Spotfire customers leverage IT infrastructure they already own.

At the end of such testimonials, it was very difficult to see whether Oracle has a serious rival in the realm of databases for high-throughput drug discovery. With a well-known 70 percent market share, Oracle is starting to penetrate smaller labs in academia and nonprofit research institutes. Hegemony might be too strong a word; no advantage lasts forever. And getting Oracle to work as advertised remains challenging, time-consuming and costly.

But for the biggest life science databases, Oracle's current strategy appears to be moving beyond the usual sniping with competitors. Rather, Oracle seems to be aiming to ingest more text, images, and other types of unstructured data not presently stored in relational databases -- and thereby increase the reach of its empire by making customers even more reliant on its tools.

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