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Oracle OpenWorld: What Enterprise IT Wants

What's coming at Oracle's big confab next week--and what does enterprise IT really want? Our editors square off on Mark Hurd's plans.

Next week, Oracle kicks off its annual Oracle OpenWorld conference in San Francisco. The company expects more than 50,000 attendees. Editors from InformationWeek, Dr. Dobb's, and InformationWeek Government got a quick pre-brief this week from Oracle President Mark Hurd. We didn't learn any juicy secrets--Hurd admitted that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and he let a couple of the conference announcements slip at the company's recent earnings announcement. But we did press him on a couple of matters.

First, in a recent conversation, Hurd hinted that we might see something coming on the in-memory side of the data equation--perhaps reviving whatever became of the TimesTen acquisition. But the most Hurd would say, even under the threat of torture, was to "stay tuned." In other words, expect an announcement next week.

Hurd was also anxious to let us know Oracle has plenty of cash ($32 billion), thanks to some recent successful quarterly performance, and the company plans to use it, perhaps for acquisitions. But he wouldn't be pinned down. When asked what areas Oracle needs to improve in, he seized on the wording of the question, answering: "We feel great about our technology portfolio."

So we asked about Ellison's recent statement that Autonomy (which HP purchased for more than $11 billion) shopped itself to Oracle--a claim that Autonomy CEO Mike Lynch denied, but Oracle apparently has, um, documented. Again, Hurd demurred, but hinted that we would hear more in due time. Might Oracle announce an acquisition?

We also asked Hurd about the company's hardware travails, notably its fight with HP, and how things will improve with Sun. Hurd says that while the T4 processor is now available, and the SPARC SuperCluster is the product outcome of that, Oracle has already created the roadmap to T5 and T6. While Ellison was clear about Sun's standalone X86 platform (he could care less if it died and went away, to put an extreme spin on it,) Hurd was also clear about partnering with other hardware providers, like IBM.

What about customer Exadata deployments? We've heard from Oracle competitors that Exadata mainly plays in the transaction side, and that customer deployments have not been what you'd consider large data deployments. Hurd said that we were getting bad information, and promised to not only provide some big data warehousing customers, but also demonstrate how Exadata's architecture is better suited than anyone else's to serve those customers.

Here's what my fellow editors have to say about the Hurd chat, where Oracle technology stands now--and what you can expect next week at Oracle OpenWorld.

Doug Henschen, Executive Editor, InformationWeek: Oracle's high-end data warehousing competitors claim that most of the Exadata action is on the transactional consolidation side, so we'd like to hear more from Oracle on the split between warehousing and transactional processing. As for the scalability info, we get that straight from customers.

Polk is the largest deployment we've heard about from a customer: 22 terabytes moved from Oracle 10g to Exadata as of this summer, and another 20 or so expected on the same platform (eventually). So south of 50 terabytes total. BNP Paribas had about 17 terabytes soon after its deployment.

It helps that Oracle supports Hybrid Columnar Compression, but we have yet to hear from a customer about an Exadata deployment surpassing 100 terabytes, let alone the petabyte league that Teradata, (IBM) Netezza, (EMC) Greenplum have been playing in for years. HP Vertica, too, has petabyte deployments, we hear. There may well be Exadata customers managing hundreds of terabytes, but they haven't talked to the media as yet.

As for what to expect at Oracle OpenWorld, execs let it slip that there will, indeed, be a Hadoop appliance announced at the event. Oracle Senior Vice President Andy Mendelsohn stated last year that this open-source platform for high-scale distributed processing wasn't of much interest to Oracle customers, but apparently has had a change of heart seeing how quickly Hadoop's use is spreading in marketing and social-media analytics. It's also a low-cost storage and data-processing option, but it's tough to see why Oracle would want in on commodity scale-out deployments--very X86.

And on that X86 note, if Oracle's X86 volume "goes to zero," what does that do for Oracle's buying economies for the X86-based Exadata and Exalogic offerings?

We started hearing rumors about the Hadoop Appliance earlier this year, but we'll see when it's actually going to be delivered. It took around five years for the oft-promised Oracle Fusion Applications to appear, with the grand unveiling at last year's OpenWorld. This year, I'm told we'll meet lots of happy Fusion customers during the keynotes and in breakout sessions.

Art Wittmann, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek Reports: It wouldn't be an executive interview if we didn't hear at least one refrain of "aww shucks, we're just doing whatever our customers want us to do." And while Mark Hurd's version sounds a bit more aww shucks-ish than most (probably due to his years at Baylor) it rings no more true with him than with any other industry exec: What customers want turns out be remarkably similar to what the company produces and yet nothing like what its competitors produce.

Do customers want big iron RISC-based systems? You betcha! Witness the new SPARC T4 chip and SuperCluser systems Oracle already announced. How about HP's SuperDome packed full of Itanium chips (which never suffered from the pathetic single thread performance issues that the SPARC T3 does)? Nope, turns out there's not much demand for that. So we asked Hurd whether IBM customers should be worried that Oracle might decide that their chosen RISC platform is no more worthy than HP Itanium. His answer was that it's all about volume, and IBM's RISC volume is just fine. Indeed it is. After the dustup between Oracle and HP over Itanium, the clear winner has been IBM, which now commands nearly half of the RISC market.

We're not implying that the new T4 based products don't merit a look. They sport a solid approach to parallelism and piles of solid state storage, all intended to dramatically improve Oracle database and application performance. Oracle claims some pretty lofty performance improvements base on its new architecture. Will you see the 70 times performance improvement they claim? Maybe not, but anything close to that would sure be welcome.

[Editor's Note: By the way, there's been some debate-- surprise!--about some of Oracle's benchmark claims on the SuperCluster, namely from IBM.]

John Foley, Editor, InformationWeek Government: Idiocy? Gibberish? Crazy? Crap? That was what Larry Ellison said then (in 2008) about the buzz over cloud computing, and Oracle OpenWorld is now. What a difference a few years make. The company is devoting an entire day to cloud computing at its big event, with 25 cloud sessions and 15 demos on the schedule.

Attendees will hear that Oracle has all bases covered: infrastructure as a service, software as a service, platform as a service, private clouds, public clouds, hybrid clouds. "It's about customer choice," says Hurd. After all, he says, a cloud has all the same components of a traditional data center--servers, operating systems, DBMS, apps--just delivered as a service. "The fundamentals of it are the same fundamentals." Well, yes and no. Hurd's right that the Oracle stack addresses many of the components needed to build a cloud, but there's more to it. There's multi-tenant SaaS, and Amazon-style pricing, and industry-specific clouds like the government clouds that Google and Microsoft offer. In other words, there's much more that Oracle could and should be talking about.

And maybe we'll get some of that. Oracle promises "breakthrough cloud news" on Oct. 6, the day it's devoting to the cloud. Last year at OpenWorld, Ellison, the one-time cloud critic, announced Exalogic Elastic Cloud, essentially a cloud in a box (i.e. private cloud) jam packed with Oracle software.

Charles Babcock, Editor At Large, InformationWeek: While Oracle has made some progress, I think the picture is even more confused than what John Foley hits upon above. Customers who are using the cloud or merely running Oracle in their own data centers are handicapped by Oracle's continued insistence that, if you're running its database in a virtual machine, Oracle reserves the right to demand that you replicate a problem outside the virtual machine before its technical support gets involved.

This clause is in its database support contracts. It is infrequently invoked, I suspect, but talk about dragging your feet going into the second decade of the 21st century. Is that clause there because Oracle knows there are things that can go wrong with the database in another vendor's virtual machine, or is it there because Oracle would prefer to be the one to sell you your virtualization environment? Even in a crowd that wants to give Oracle the benefit of the doubt, the answers on that issue would be heavily divided.

I'm reminded of how, when Oracle first launched, there were database suppliers who dragged their feet on adopting SQL, which Oracle embraced early. We know what happened to them. Is it happening to Oracle on the virtualization front?

Exadata and ExaLogic are impressive appliances, if you're wedded to all those software licenses, but what if the pattern of the future is your on-premises database works with a larger capacity system, as needed, in the cloud? This would be the hybrid model of cloud computing working in the database realm. Right now, there are privacy and compliance barriers to allowing the data outside the firewall, but those barriers are not going to be there forever.

If hybrid database operation becomes an accepted practice, then the cloud in a box is going to look like a velociraptor crossed with a wooly mammoth--neither fast nor sharp. Oracle wants to compete with Microsoft, but Microsoft is working on the hybrid model with SQL Server coordinating with Azure SQL. What's Oracle doing?

Andrew Binstock, Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Dobb's: JavaOne, Oracle's annual confab for Java developers, is being held concurrently with Oracle OpenWorld at a nearby venue. Because Oracle released Java 7 in July (after a 5 year delay) and Java 8's schedule has already been published, no significant announcements are expected, but rather statements of future direction hinted at. There will also not be the drama of last year's show in which James Gosling--the father of Java--tried to get JavaOne attendees to buy and wear T-shirts that protested Oracle's stewardship of the language.

Oracle And Vertical Industries

During Oracle's most recent earnings call, the company was bullish on its prospects across vertical industries, particularly calling out government and financial services. Even though both sectors are seeing troubled times, Oracle believes there is a tremendous opportunity for its products, and has forecast growth. Here's what our editors say about Oracle and verticals.

Greg MacSweeney, Editorial Director, InformationWeek Financial Services: In the financial services space, Oracle's messaging has been focused on the new regulatory landscape and how financial institutions must be prepared to deliver transparency through better analysis of financial data. Exadata and Exalogic have been, of course, touted as the solutions to help banks meet these regulatory goals. But banks already have established and complicated data management, risk management and reporting structures in place, so what inroads is Oracle Exadata/Exalogic making in financial services?

Doug Henschen brings up a good point about the size of a Exadata deployments, which is certainly relevant here: Most banks have many terabytes of financial data, but so far we haven't heard of a big bank using Exadata for a big data deployment.

The other trend we are following in financial services--and one that will directly impact Oracle if the trend continue--is the increasing usage of non "enterprise" technologies by banks. Traditionally, banks have relied on enterprise technology from Oracle, EMC, SAP, and IBM, to name a few providers. But with the increasing availability of alternatives, many banks are actively pursuing open source-based solutions that do not have the dreaded vendor "lock in."

This is a big step for highly regulated banks, who until now have admittedly often preferred the security and regulatory "cover" provided by working with large enterprise vendors (as the saying goes, no one ever got fired for buying IBM). However, the cost and flexibility advantages provided by non-enterprise technology have become too great to ignore. How will Oracle and other enterprise software vendors respond to the financial industry's demand for more flexible, lower cost technology (without lock in)?

John Foley, Editor, InformationWeek Government: Oracle is giving its government customers a special, discounted rate ($1,795) to OpenWorld, but don't expect to see a lot of tech execs from the federal government at the show. On Sept. 21, Jack Lew, director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, issued a memo to the heads of all federal agencies requiring them to cut back on "unnecessary" travel and conference expenses, as part of the White House's so-called Campaign to Cut Waste.

What are government CIOs to do? When Oracle is done packing its servers and other gear back into crates after OpenWorld, it will bring its show east. The fifth annual Oracle Federal Forum will be held Oct. 18 in Washington, D.C. Hurd, a featured speaker at the forum, says the feds need to modernize their IT systems while improving performance and bringing innovation to service delivery. That spells opportunity for Oracle, he says. The trick will be to find funding for those projects amid belt tightening in Washington.

Legend has it that, back in the '70's, the CIA was one of Oracle's first customers. There are still pockets of federal government, the defense and intelligence agencies in particular, where CIOs are willing to pay a premium for high-performing database systems. The U.S. spends about $80 billion on intelligence activities, which is over and above the $80 billion federal IT budget. That helps explain why Hurd will be making this trip.

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