Spellbound by word of Oracle


Critics may dismiss this software ‘behemoth’ but shareholders are entranced by the stellar results – in spite of annual sagas, writes Karlin Lillingtonin San Francisco

THE VERY nature of software (and now, hardware too) company Oracle means its annual user conference in San Francisco, OpenWorld, rarely lacks for drama. If it were an opera, Oracle would be pure Wagner.

Big, brash and aggressive, Oracle almost inevitably has some saga unfolding at the time of the yearly autumn event, be it a hostile company acquisition, a major strategy shift, a lawsuit or battle with regulators, a new product, or the audacious addition of a high profile executive.

This year’s OpenWorld, which took place this week, ticked almost every box. Major hardware and software launches, new strategies including an inevitable move towards cloud computing, a glimpse of the long awaited (and massive) Fusion applications suite and the first appearance of That Former HP CEO in his new Oracle incarnation meant the pace rarely slackened.

And when it did, conference attendees – 41,000 of them, making this the largest technology event in the world – could view armoured costumes from the film Iron Man II, opt for a Dell-sponsored fruit smoothie, build Lego structures to win prizes from Google, or listen to country music while eating their EMC-sponsored lunch on their personal Oracle picnic blanket outside.

For the nautically minded, the entire main lobby of the Moscone exhibition centre was taken over by what amounted to a shrine to the Oracle-BMW yachting team that won the America’s Cup trophy this year.

The prized trophy itself was there too, brought home to the US by a team funded largely by Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison, who was himself a team member.

For most attendees, initial interest and intrigue was focused on the first public appearance of former HP chief executive Mark Hurd in his new role as Oracle co-president following his high-profile resignation from HP a few weeks earlier.

His presence was limited to a slot in one of the first keynote speeches, during which he didn’t mention the lawsuit his former company had just brought against him for taking the Oracle job. Instead, he told the packed auditorium that he was “thrilled to be here” and “glad to be part of the team” before moving quickly along to a corporate and product overview.

Though the long-standing relationship between Oracle and HP was clearly strained, HP vice-president Ann Livermore shared the kick-off Sunday keynote slot with Ellison, and by late Monday, the lawsuit had been withdrawn.

Ellison, who has in the past disparaged the term “cloud computing” – generally used to refer to utilising storage, applications, or processing power via the internet rather than physically on the computer at point of use – made an about face and announced Oracle would now embrace the cloud, or at least a version of it defined by Oracle.

“We believe it’s a platform. It’s a comprehensive applications development and execution environment, including hardware and software,” he said.

He also announced a new hardware offering emerging from Oracle’s acquisition last January of Sun Microsystems. This “cloud in a box” high-end “middleware machine” integrates Oracle hardware and software and goes by the tongue-twisting name of the Oracle Exalogic Elastic Cloud.

To the relief (and frustration) of many developers, Ellison finally revealed some of Oracle’s strategy regarding its open source software acquisitions which landed on Oracle’s plate due to its purchase of Sun. Oracle would indeed continue to develop Solaris, Sun’s open sourced version of Unix, with a new release due out next year, Mr Ellison said.

Likewise, he said, Oracle was working on a new release of the Sun-owned open source database MySQL – a direct competitor to Oracle’s own database application. And Ellison announced the release of an “Oracle optimised” kernel, or core software code, for its version of open source operating system Linux.

Finally, Ellison gave a preview of Oracle’s upcoming massive software suite, Fusion Applications, which will have more than 100 modules designed to integrate with Oracle’s Fusion Middleware management software.

This vast array of applications, hardware, and open source projects appeals to many users because they feel a single source of ownership means better integration and reliability compared to working with an a la carte mix of products from different vendors.

However, others fear that Oracle – which has bought 66 companies in five years – is becoming a behemoth that now owns and controls nearly every tier of its information technology portfolio.

Such breadth, achieved through the purchase of many of its key competitors, brings the threat of price hikes and full market control, say critics.

Meanwhile, the open source community fears that, with little incentive to develop free versions of products that often compete with its own, Oracle will let these venerable projects languish over time.

One group at least is very happy with Oracle: shareholders. Stellar results last week despite a recession, with net income up 20 per cent from a year ago and sales up 50 per cent in the last quarter, saw shares rise and a willingness to let Larry give whatever goofy name he wants to his company’s products.