You already know how
much I enjoy large and imperious IT companies like Microsoft
– and some of you may recall that I have occasionally given
Oracle a bit of leery glance when reviewing monopolists and
unlovely large IT firms with far too much influence for the
good of the rest of us. Oracle
boss, Larry Ellison, swung through the UK recently, and made a
number of grandiose comments as befits (at $26bn) the
world’s fourth richest man, and someone thus guaranteed an
attentive audience of fawning hacks, even if he were only to
recite “Jack and Jill”.
Some two years ago
now, the Oracle chief executive made a bold prediction when he
declared: “If the internet turns out not to be the future of
computing, then we’re toast!”
Well, a lot has
happened in those two years, and the lustre is definitely off
the internet, although that’s not to say that it isn’t the
future of computing. It might be retracing a few steps to get
back to where it was before the mega bucks went up in flames.
Oracle, for those of
who you don’t know, produces some pretty darned unfriendly
database software, that somehow seems to imply that it is
immensely powerful in the minds of some. Oracle has never
really shown any real sustainable interest in creating a
product for the PC user, although there have been a couple of
shots (Personal Oracle), they have preferred instead to remain
aligned at the “high end” with IBM and its DB2 product
line. (Not to be confused with the erstwhile Ashton-Tate
product of that name). The genre is known as “client
server” sounds tailor made for the internet, but actually
it’s not at all, and requires a ground-up overhaul of
thought and strategy to be better suited to life through the
By hiding out with IBM
in this rarefied atmosphere where “corporate” developers
think nothing of blowing £50k of other peoples’ cash on
some pretty hairy software that requires a further £250k of
stroking by over-paid software developers before it is capable
of doing something that an Access wrangler can knock up in 30
minutes, Oracle has managed to keep an eager following of
people who prefer to be paid £100 an hour for 1000 hours
jobs. After all, when did you last actively pull the
communication cord on the gravy train while you stepped off..?
I thought so.
The awful, awful truth
is that database software is desperately boring; it is the
software equivalent of UPS (uninterruptible power supplies)
when it comes to the IT excitement stakes. And only those of
you who have ever been required to wax lyrical about a UPS
will understand what that means. Moreover, database authoring
software is not very difficult to conceptualise and design.
The trick comes in making it resilient, and capable of
withstanding abuse of various sorts, without trashing the core
data. Database software is the ultimate in mission critical
computing, and it can be very difficult to assess the
competence of a database development project until a lot of
time and money has been spent on it.
If a design can’t
handle being scaled up easily, then it might require a total
rewrite – so developers tend to play safe and start with
something that has a reputation for scalability.
And this leads us to the reason why is Microsoft not
all over the enterprise database scene. Well, this stems form
Bill’s hatred of IBM and refusal to support any platform
than MS Windows, which allowed Oracle to sneak in because it
was willing to support IBM’s dreadful but ubiquitous mini
and mainframe architecture. And also Unix, which made him best
mates with Sun, of course.
“Aha,” I hear you
say, “Accounting software is actually the most boring!”
Well, I have news for
you, what is it that powers any accounting software..? What
lies beneath the hood? The answer is database software. Yes,
accounting software is just database software with a slightly
sexier wrapper and user interface “shell”. De facto,
database software is more boring than accounting software.
It seems possible that
developers of database software are thus not the
glamour-seekers and rocket scientists of the software age, but
those who have enjoyed a
personality bypass. There is much evidence that developers on
£100/hour Oracle contracts are really just in it for the
money (there is no job satisfaction) and thus inclined to spin
out the job to the very maximum possible.
So in the times of
plenty when bankers wanted to “play safe”, no one got
fired for suggesting blowing a mil or two on an Oracle-powered
web site, because that was a tick in a box that bankers
understood. But now sanity checks on web spending are coming
into fashion, the fact that Oracle continue to get away with
it deserves a closer look.
Like Microsoft, Oracle
has pretty much run the competition out of town, and boasts of
a near monopoly of what it perceives as its markets. Oracle
even tried to tie the pricing of the product to the CPU power
of the users, but soon got a raspberry.
Despite its present
position, if the internet is heading back to its roots and
about to re-emerge with the original ethos in tact, then
Oracle is going to extremely vulnerable to the combination of
Linux and user-supported open source database solutions.
Unlike MS Office, real users have no real investment in
database software – and as long it works at it’s boring
basic level, then that will do just fine. So enjoy that $26bn
while you can, Larry.