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4/22/2011
07:00 PM
Fritz Nelson
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When Oracle And Cisco Face Fire, Their Execs Breathe It Too

Oracle is battling the big players in Big Data with its integrated stack approach. Cisco is battling the commoditization of its core business. As those battles were heating up, Oracle President Safra Catz and Cisco CEO John Chambers came out with a little fire.

Despite obvious stylistic differences, Oracle co-President Safra Catz and Cisco CEO John Chambers owe much of their success to things they have in common: Each is fiercely competitive, and each is defined by the cultures of the companies they marshal. Catz, whose sharpness is both intellectual and cutting, doesn't suffer lesser rivals gladly. Chambers, the consensus builder and collaborator, has often been rumored to be headed for politics.

Each is deft at never quite saying much in public; and yet by doing so, each says more than meets the casual eye. For a sampling of their styles, let's deconstruct what they had to say, and how they said it, during separate fireside-style chats at Wells Fargo's Technology Transformation Summit in San Francisco earlier this month.

Catz's sarcasm drips off every turn of phrase. Where Chambers takes his competitive digs subtly, Catz brawls like a barroom bouncer. Even those receiving her blows must marvel at her ability to hit the target, even if it sometimes is below the belt. She's always on the offensive, a style I observed while watching her twice on the witness stand during the recent Oracle-SAP trial last year.

At the Wells Fargo summit, though, Catz was more relaxed following some excellent financial results, but her barbs were especially sharp; her quips were quippier. She looked back on the past year as a "treasure hunt," as Oracle, she said, continued finding new gems from its Sun acquisition. While Catz called the overall business straightforward, she maintained that there are many more technologies from Sun that simply haven't become products. She couldn't resist offering that "blathering on is not Oracle," a clear reference to former Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz. "Blogging is not a full-time job at Oracle," she added, just in case anyone missed her first jab at Schwartz.

But Oracle has bigger enemies to fry, especially in Big Data. By calling its database appliance "Exadata," it's as if Oracle is saying, "We'll let others mess around with mere terabytes of data. We have much grander plans." Catz focused her Big Data vitriol on IBM and EMC. "IBM buying Netezza when they have been in the hardware and database business forever . . . it blows my mind!" she exclaimed. The same with EMC and its acquisition of Greeplum, and HP of Vertica, she added. All those moves were a reaction to Exadata, she boasted. All of those photos from outer space? In Oracle databases. Music delivered by popular music services? In Oracle databases. "We love Big Data," Katz said. "More data, more Oracle."

While it's true, Oracle has hundreds of thousands of database customers, we've yet to see an Exadata deployment in the hundreds of terabytes, let alone petabytes or exabytes. The reality is that Oracle (and IBM and EMC) finally had to respond as Teradata, Netezza, Greenplum, and other startups started to dominate the Big Data market.

I wouldn't bet against Oracle, but for now, Teradata is the Big Data player to beat. It is completely focused on high-end data warehousing, and it has a long list of high-profile customers to prove it, including Coca Cola, eBay, Ford, Home Depot, Lloyds Banking Group, RBC Financial, Union Pacific, Verizon, and Vodofone. When companies scaled off of Oracle, they turned to Teradata, and Teradata faced little competition until the likes of Netezza and Greenplum came along.

A battle royal is forming among Oracle, Teradata, IBM, EMC, and possibly HP.

"Greenplum can focus on all the Greenplum workloads," Catz said. Exadata will focus on the Oracle workloads, of which there are a lot more. For good measure, she added that Exadata "is only good if you want to run faster and spend less." Gosh, who'd be foolish enough to say no to that?

It wouldn't be an Oracle moment if Catz didn't take a shot at SAP. She took a few. But she also poked fun at herself. Talking about the long-awaited Fusion, the next-generation Oracle application platform to replace the Oracle E-Business, PeopleSoft, and JD Edwards apps, Catz insisted that customers should switch quickly. "I mean, we gave them enough notice!" she said, alluding to the fact that the product has been in the works since 2005 and is now close to three years late.

In touting Fusion's benefits, Catz talked about how easy it will be to use the apps. "In SAP, they will be like ctl-alt-F12," she jabbed. She quickly added: "I exaggerate. My German isn't that good." The audience rolled.

But the long wait has also meant that customers could prepare for an even bigger change -- away from Oracle applications altogether. Fusion is such an enormous change that, improved and cohesive as it may be, customers are likely to look around. Combined with its recent rebuff of Itanium, Oracle is toying dangerously with customer loyalty. The next year will try Catz's coolness. Her barbs may get barbier.

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