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10/7/2011
11:59 AM
Doug Henschen
Doug Henschen
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5 High Points And Low Points At Oracle Open World

Ellison blusters and Hurd disappoints while the lieutenants, and several key announcements, impress.

There was a gap at this week's Oracle OpenWorld event in San Francisco between the performance of the company's top executives, CEO Larry Ellison and President Mark Hurd, and that of their lieutenants.

Ellison was uneven and Hurd inconsequential while, to a fault, lieutenant VPs Thomas Kurian, John Fowler, Steve Miranda, and others impressed. Customers must live with technology, not speeches, so you might ask, who cares? But in the context of the leadership upheaval in the tech industry these last few months, it's as clear as ever that personalities and communication skills do matter.

In August, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff pulled off a triumphant Dreamforce event, masterfully articulating the significance of the social networking revolution while underscoring the rise of cloud computing. It was a leadership performance that was only diminished by this week's publicity seeking reprise, in which Benioff offered much the same speech from a restaurant after his keynote appearance at OpenWorld was abruptly cancelled by Oracle. In September, Hewlett-Packard CEO Leo Apotheker got fired in part for his failure to articulate a clear vision for the company. And then, just as Ellison was winding up his closing keynote this week, word started spreading that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had passed away, making the latest tech developments seem, well, less important.

[ Want more on the passing of Steve Jobs? Read How Steve Jobs Touched My Life: Readers Speak. ]

Leadership is so critical in the tech industry, and as I've been reading in The Presentation Secrets Of Steve Jobs recently, how leaders communicate can make a huge difference in the success of their companies.

Here, then, are my thoughts on the communications high points and low points of Oracle OpenWorld, along with my observations on the underlying technologies discussed.

Low point: Ellison's opening night keynote address. This year's Saleforce.com Dreamforce event was big, but Oracle OpenWorld felt bigger--with more than 475 exhibitors and 45,000 attendees reported, and a huge crush of people at Ellison's opening speech. He served up his usual shtick, punching and jabbing IBM and HP while explaining the company's engineered systems strategy.

Unfortunately, Ellison went 10 rounds talking just about the Exadata and Exalogic platforms, both introduced last year, and then the Sparc SuperCluster, announced the previous week. In fact, Ellison's keynote was mostly a reprise of his T4 server presentation, and I'm not the only observer who was worn out by the time he finally got around to the new news, the Oracle Exalytics Business Intelligence Machine. That left just two rounds to explain what that in-memory-powered machine does and why it will matter to businesses. But Ellison kept going with a series of hardware-tech-stat jabs.

High point: Kurian and Rodwick clear things up.. In his Monday keynote, Kurian, executive VP of product development, delivered a high-level yet detailed overview centered on middleware but highlighting key announcements at the event, including Exalytics, a new Big Data Appliance, new application mobility options, and more. He managed to artfully weave in a product-by-product rationale for each engineered system, and he brought Exalytics into focus by describing business-relevant, real-time scenarios, such as instantaneous virtual closes in various Oracle ERP financial systems; responsive what-if demand forecasting and demand planning in the Demantra demand-planning app; rapid sales and marketing planning supported by the ATG e-commerce engine; workforce planning in PeopleSoft; and fine-grained transaction analysis in Hyperion enterprise performance management apps.

Where Kurian left off on Exalytics, Paul Rodwick, VP of product management, went even deeper during a press conference, explaining that the machine will run Oracle Business Intelligence Foundation software and support the TimesTen relational database and Essbase multidimensional database simultaneously. That means Exalytics will support all current Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition (OBIEE) applications unchanged, he explained, noting a contrast with SAP's Hana appliance, which is running purpose-built apps.

Mind you, there aren't many applications that call for Exalytics speed and capacity, and the applications that do will probably have to be built from scratch or, if they exist, rebuilt to take advantage of Exalytics' attributes. Nonetheless, Kurian and Rodwick brought depth and credibility to Ellison's Exalytics bravado.

Low point: Hurd comes up short. The Oracle president and former HP CEO has a reputation for running a tight financial ship and having strong sales skills, but he might as well have phoned in his performance as a keynote presenter. He promised to "talk about strategy" and "provide context for how Oracle's technology fits into a framework," but he never delivered. Hurd spent all of 10 minutes on stage on Monday morning, and more than half of that time was taken up by a two sound-bite-laden, buzzword-filled videos: one on 2011 achievements and the other on what's ahead for 2012. A sample of the depth of "strategy" and "context" offered in those videos? Oracle's other president, Safra Catz, saying, "We are big data, and we're also the cloud."

Hurd may have some things in common with former Oracle President Charles Phillips, but Phillips would have delivered the business context with flair. And he would have articulated, at length, the connection to C-level priorities, detailing specific customers and business challenges and mentioning key executives at those companies by name. That was something sorely lacking at this year's event. Ellison is Ellison, so it has always been up to Oracle's president(s) to rise above the technology bits and bytes and the competitive claims and talk about why businesses need this stuff.

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