Analysis: Oracle’s big build up

There was a big build up for Oracle 9i. The database and application server which make up the package were originally announced at Oracle’s Openworld in October last year promising public availability in March 2001. So confident was Oracle’s CEO Larry Ellison that in the autumn of last year he made a few wild bets. Those firms swapping over to the product from IBM’s DB2 or Microsoft’s SQL server, he said, will see their websites run three times faster. If not, he promised an award of $1m! While expectations soared, the launch date kept changing until eventually Oracle made the decision on 15 May that it was in a one month “launch period”. It was an unfortunate start to Oracle’s most significant database upgrade in years and the beginning of a strategy which could put a whole new slant on business software.

New features in this version include integrated data mining capabilities, the ability to partition data, and private domains for individuals and individual companies in a single database. The concept of “dynamic services” is also introduced which enables users to source websites and connect them to their own, and there’s a new manageability feature designed to cut costs for users and make the product easier to use.

The most exciting technical advance however is in the software’s clustering capabilities which allow a database to be run over several “industry standard” servers (ie those which use Intel 32-bit processors). Real Application Clustering (RAC) enables nodes to simultaneously access disk drives. Reliability is improved as each machine in a cluster acts as a failover server for every other, and performance is boosted by use of a shared cache instead of the traditional disk storage.

Oracle 9i has been aimed squarely at the management of e-business and B2B processes. The ability to spread a database across several servers enables great flexibility, particularly with online systems which can grow fast and unpredictably. New servers can be added as required. The attraction for large enterprises, Oracle claims, is that this version is the first database capable of running enterprise software from SAP AG or Peoplesoft on multiple computers.

Oracle 9i is more than just a revamped database however. Along with the company’s application server the 9i platform is at the heart of Oracle’s e-commerce and enterprise infrastructure providing a complete package for company-wide applications and for conducting business over the Internet. In this new vision, the database becomes the centrepiece of an integrated suite of applications, replacing the current hotch potch of business applications currently available from multiple vendors. This version is particularly strong on business intelligence tools such as OLAP, data mining, and data warehousing, putting pressure on specialist vendors like Cognos, and SAS. The integration of such tools is attractive to large organisations that are always keen to simplify their supply and support arrangements.

The database advances are impressive and the integration plan makes sense, but there are question marks around the technology and Oracle’s ability to gain support from its customers. The very short beta period given to Oracle 9i has not inspired confidence and a recent report from Meta Group recommends that users wait 10-12 months before considering migration. It also warns that it does not expect RAC to work immediately in production systems and that a series of intermediate upgrades will be almost inevitable.

Other analysts think that RAC technology will be more useful to service providers than enterprise customers. According to research firm Gartner Group, only 10% of Oracle’s user-base use clustering technologies and less than 5% use it for high availability. But Oracle may find new customers among ISPs and ASPs that prefer a more uniform architecture and will also be attracted by the new ability to set up virtual private databases.

Feedback from existing customers has been lukewarm. Many are reluctant to part with money until they are convinced that the technology will offer significant benefits. Their caution is partly due to Oracle’s unpopular power unit pricing plan where firms were charged according to the speed of their processors. Although the scheme has now been dropped, an air of bad-feeling remains, and customers are now on their guard when it comes to long-term commitment. Oracle may find that its high-minded concepts of scalability, reliability and performance fail to impress customers who are more concerned with old-fashioned ideas like price and customer service.


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