I spent a couple of hours today listening to Oracle talk about the long-awaited integration with Sun Microsystems. A real end of an era and beginning of a new one. What does this mean for Oracle? Whatever you might think about Oracle, you have to give the company credit for successfully integrating the 60 companies it has purchased over the past few years. Having watched hundreds and perhaps thousands of acquisitions over the last few decades, it is clear that integration is hard. There are overlapping technologies, teams, cultures, and egos. Oracle has successfully managed to leverage the IP from its acquisitions to support its business goals. For example, it has kept packaged software customers happy by improving the software. Peoplesoft customers, for example, were able to continue to use the software they had become dependent on in primarily the same way as before the acquisition. In some cases, the quality of the software actually improved dramatically. The path has been more complicated with the various middleware and infrastructure platforms the company has acquired over the years because of overlapping functionality.
The acquisition of Sun Microsystems is the biggest game changer for Oracle since the acquisition of PeopleSoft. There is little doubt that Sun has significant software and hardware IP that will be very important in defining Oracle in the 21st century. But I don’t expect this to be a simple journey. Here are the five key issues that I think will be tricky for Oracle to navigate. Obviously, this is not a complete list but it is a start.
Issue One: Can Oracle recreate the mainframe world? The mainframe is dead — long live the mainframe. Oracle has a new fondness for the mainframe and what that model could represent. So, if you combine Sun’s hardware, networking layer, storage, security, packaged applications, middleware into a package do you get to own total share of a customer’s wallet? That is the idea. Oracle management has determined that IBM had the right ideas in the 1960s — everything was nicely integrated and the customer never had to worry about the pieces working together.
Issue Two: Can you package everything together and still be an open platform? To its credit, Oracle has build its software on standards such as Unix/Linux, XML, Java, etc. So, can you have it both ways? Can you claim openness when the platform itself is hermetically sealed? I think it may be a stretch. In order to accomplish this goal, Oracle would have to have well-defined and published APIs. It would have to be able to certify that with these APIs the integrated platform won’t be broken. Not an easy task.
Issue Three: Can you manage a complex computing environment? Computing environments get complicated because there are so many moving parts. There are configurations that change; software gets patched; new operating system versions are introduced; emerging technology enters and messes up the well established environment. Oracle would like to automate the process of managing this process for customers. It is an appealing idea since configuration problems, missing links, and poor testing are often responsible for many of the outages in computing environments today. Will customers be willing to have this type of integrated environment controlled and managed by a single vendor? Some customers will be happy to turn over these headaches. Others may have too much legacy or want to work with a variety of vendors. This is not a new dilemma for customers. Customers have long had to rationalize the benefits of a single source of technology against the risks of being locked in.
Issue Four: Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Can Oracle really be a hardware vendor? Clearly, Sun continues to be a leader in hardware despite its diminished fortunes. But as anyone who has ventured into the hardware world knows, hardware is a tough, brutal game. In fact, it is the inverse of software. Software takes many cycles to reach maturation. It needs to be tweaked and finessed. However, once it is in place it has a long, long life. The old saying goes, old software never dies. The same cannot be said for hardware. Hardware has a much straighter line to maturity. It is developed, designed, and delivered to the market. Sometimes it leapfrogs the competition enough that it has a long and very profitable life. Other times, it hits the market at the end of a cycle when a new more innovative player enters the market. The culmination of all the work and effort can be short as something new comes along at the right place at the right time. It is often a lot easier to get rid of hardware than software. The computer industry is littered with the corpses of failed hardware platforms that started with great fanfare and then faded away quickly. Will Oracle be successful with hardware? It will depend on how really good the company is in transforming its DNA.
Issue Five. Are customers ready to embrace Oracle’s brave new world? Oracle’s strategy is a good one — if you are Oracle. But what about for customers? And what about for partners? Customers need to understand the long-term implication and tradeoffs in buying into Oracle’s integrated approach to its platform. It will clearly mean fewer moving parts to worry about. It will mean one phone call and no finger pointing. However, customers have to understand the type of leverage that single company will have in terms of contract terms and conditions. And what about partners? How does an independent software vendor or a channel partner participate within the new Oracle? Is there room? What type of testing and preparation will be required to play?