Confused Tools Strategy?

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"The Internet tool strategy is unnecessarily confused," said analyst Monash, who has followed Oracle since 1982. "Both the traditional tools and the otherwise excellent WebDB seem to be sitting off as procedural and pre-object-oriented architectures. The Java developer code line they bought from Borland is a fine code line, but it doesn't seem to be all that well integrated with the other products," he noted. Oracle licensed an early version of Borland's JBuilder Java tool and enhanced it to create JDeveloper. Bill Dwight, vice president of Java tools at Oracle, said the firm has added server-side business logic and other capabilities to the JBuilder code. Oracle developers are now in the process of rewriting the Delphi-based JDeveloper IDE in Java.

"Oracle's tools have a lot more credibility than they had two or three years ago," said Merv Adrian, a vice president in the Santa Clara, Calif., offices of Giga Information Group, a Norwell, Mass.-based consulting firm. "Back then, the majority of Oracle [database] users used PowerBuilder [from Sybase] for development. That's not true anymore." Added Giga colleague Carl Zetie, a senior analyst, "Oracle has fixed a lot of product problems. They have outlasted a lot of other people."

On the other hand, Zetie agrees that Oracle faces a difficult dilemma in its attempt to broaden its tool business. "If Oracle will open up its tools to integrate with Enterprise JavaBeans and CORBA, while preserving that productivity and ease of use that has always characterized the products, then they will have an appealing product for [IT] organizations," he said. "The question is: Can they do that without breaking Oracle applications or their user base?"

Oracle's Dwight said CORBA and EJB are already the base technology of the Business Components for Java framework and that the Oracle development unit is working to incorporate the standard technologies into other products.

Mark E. Johnson, assistant vice president in the sales and marketing unit of BancOne, Chicago, describes the Oracle Java development tool as competitive with the top products of other vendors and the best choice for a site running the Oracle database. BancOne is using the JDeveloper tool suite to build an Internet-based application linking decision support and customer relationship management software to improve recruiting and training operations at the bank.

Johnson said his development group evaluated Java development tools from Symantec, IBM and Inprise because "JDeveloper came as a suite that included Oracle 8, an application server, SQL Plus and JDeveloper -- for the same price as the other tools." He also noted that his BancOne unit "has a 10-year investment in Oracle and we weren't going to change the database. The Oracle tool lets us do everything we want to do." Johnson depicted the decision to use JDeveloper as a major one for his unit. "We were concerned because Oracle is not known as a tools company. We know that once you make a tool choice it's a big effort to switch," he said.

The project was 70% done by early summer, noted Johnson, and is scheduled for completion by the end of September.

Johnson said he expects the tool's capabilities to improve considerably once his group installs Oracle 8i during the coming months and when it begins using Oracle's new Web Components for Java software. "We've been testing the components since May," he said. The software "gives us a more object-oriented approach to getting data out."

Oracle is depending heavily on the product bundling scheme that clinched the deal to sell the JDeveloper Suite to BancOne. A broader Internet Platform suite includes the Oracle 8i database, Oracle's Application Server entry and Internet application development tools. Oracle has also bundled its Designer and Developer CASE tools with the developer, database and application servers and third-party site design and management products, including Visual Page from Symantec and IBM's Wallop Build-It toolset into the Enterprise Developer Suite (known earlier as the Web Developer Suite). The latter includes an evaluation copy of JDeveloper.

Nettwerk Productions, a Vancouver, B.C.-based music production and management firm, uses the Oracle Internet Platform to develop its complex Web site "Oracle has a hell of a learning curve, but once you get over it there's nothing I haven't been able to do," said Jeff Grant, IT manager at Nettwerk. "We invested a lot of time to learn Oracle. That time wasn't wasted."

Grant said the site currently uses Oracle 8.05 to store SQL stored procedures, which cuts the number of programmers required to work on the system.

He added that his unit is now in the process of converting the site's HTML code to Java, and is hoping to utilize a future version of the JDeveloper toolset to help with the project. "We tried JDeveloper 2 and didn't like it," he said. "Now, we're in the JDeveloper 3 beta program." Grant said Nettwerk is hoping to use the JDeveloper toolset with Oracle 8i following the latter's installation later this year.

Questions about app server

Meanwhile, the 8i version of the Oracle database has raised questions about Oracle's commitment to its two-year-old application server offering.

"The application server is looking like a secondary product," said Monash of Monash Information Services. "If you wish to have a certain topology, then the [application] server is a good thing. If [a company] is so big that its host machine runs across multiple hardware systems, then Oracle's position is that the application server is helping offload among machines. But if you put everything on a single machine -- and the machines are getting ever bigger -- then the application server may not have much point moving forward."

"They [Oracle] don't have the positioning right, but they do have [an application server]," added Giga's Adrian. "Microsoft doesn't have one. Oracle misses a lot of potential with its application server because they don't acknowledge that people might use an application without an Oracle database."

In addition to those positioning issues, Oracle faces the challenge of quickly incorporating Internet capabilities to its application software. "The piece they are missing is enterprise applications with an HTML front end," said Zetie of Giga. "That limits their ability to compete in Internet applications. They are fine on the intranet, but challenged on the Internet."

That key challenge may keep Lane on board for the long term, say analysts. "Oracle has to be sure to give Ray Lane the opportunity that matches or exceeds what he could get elsewhere," said analyst Monash. "If the Internet stock boom continues, Oracle has to make sure Ray is generously compensated. Ray has not been shy about that."

Oracle has become ubiquitous in many IT organizations, but in earlier times many once-prevalent products faded quickly when their developers failed to see the future. Oracle is still facing potential pitfalls -- keeping Ray Lane happy, the application server conundrum, the lack of a coherent tools strategy, and keeping up in the struggling ERP market -- that will force constant re-invention. But the company has a survival instinct that makes it hard to say it cannot thrive over the long term.

About the Author

Mike Bucken is former Editor-in-Chief of Application Development Trends magazine.