The network is the computer, and the DBMS is the operating system
Late last year, Oracle and Sun announced a technology swap, giving Oracle access
to Solaris components for its Raw Iron Products. What is Raw Iron? It is Oracle's
DBMS-without-a-whole-operating-system "Internet appliance" offering.
The premise is that a DBMS already provides OS-like functionality in areas such
as memory management and general "processing" control. True, it is
missing other OS elements, such as device drivers, but now that this deal is
in place Oracle is licensing those from Sun.
And, as Oracle points out in connection with its "Aurora" Java Virtual
Machine, the processing requirements of multi-user database applications are
rather different from those of other kinds of computing. So Oracle's idea is
this: If you're going to have a dedicated DBMS box anyway, who needs a general
purpose OS? Can't we actually do a better job of giving you what you need? In
theory, this makes perfect sense. Even so, in its first iteration, Oracle's
Raw Iron is about as silly as, well, as a typical Microsoft Version 1 product.
There are two major flaws in the premise that haven't yet been addressed. First,
maybe a general purpose OS isn't necessary, but how does having an OS on your
computer actually hurt anything? Processing overhead? Administrative difficulty?
Purchase price? Microsoft would find it easy to respond competitively in any
or all of those areas.
Second, Oracle says that a major benefit of Raw Iron will be its simplicity,
stability and administrative fit-and-finish. Already in Version 1. Yeah, right.
I had hoped never to hear again about a Release 1 product that promised superior
robustness after a short beta cycle. Indeed, the initial release will be Oracle
8.0-compatible, not 8i -- in other words the "Internet appliance"
won't run the "Internet database."
Many silly Version 1 products eventually turn into Version 3 powerhouses, however
-- and Raw Iron might just be one of them. To see a hint of why, let's consider
more generally the future of computing.
OS vs. DBMS -- The end of Microsoft?
The Oracle/Sun deal is a no-money technology swap. Sun's side of the deal is
that it gets to use the Oracle DBMS internally to support Solaris services,
especially middleware. Now, it's not clear how important this is. After all,
Sun wasn't in a position to charge a high price for the Solaris code, for several
- Availability of low-cost alternatives (free Unixes).
- Obvious benefits of integrating with Oracle's DBMS.
- Obvious benefits of annoying Microsoft.
Suspect as it is, however, Sun's side of the agreement at least illustrates
a key point -- operating systems will increasingly rely on DBMS or DBMS-like
underpinnings. For a variety of reasons, there are going to be ever more "state,"
"context" or "user-profile" variables to track. And a DBMS
will be needed to keep them all straight. Add in the DBMS' role in memory and
process management, and it indeed seems that the OS of the future is going to
look ever more like a DBMS.
By contrast, the central Microsoft value proposition -- industry-standard APIs
for low-level C bit-twiddling -- will become less and less important. The Internet
has brought us a whole new GUI API, and it's one that Microsoft doesn't own.
And small, special-purpose smart appliances certainly won't house much of Microsoft's
current technology. Microsoft Office will also become ever less important, even
on standard desktop/laptop PCs. The Internet has changed document creation paradigms
permanently. Traditional beautification is less important than it was, and it's
not coming back soon. When complexity does get added back in, it will be database-oriented
tagging (from XML on static documents to dynamic HTML generation). And while
Microsoft Excel continues to be a crucial product, even it is sharing pride
of place with an ever-growing universe of database-oriented business intelligence
Microsoft's core server-side business model is to sell near-state-of-the-art
products in high volume at low prices, while working to create intangibles such
as ease-of-use that reinforce low total cost of ownership -- i.e., it's trying
to commoditize OLTP operating systems and DBMS. It's succeeding, too. When NT
5.0 works, in whichever millennium that first occurs, only a few applications
will need the traditional superior robustness and scalability features of, say,
Oracle's DBMS or the HP-UX operating system.
But while Microsoft may be able to give fits to the current server platform
leaders, we should recognize that Microsoft's own core technology strengths
are equally subject to marginalization.
Interesting platform businesses --
The universe and me
While traditional platform businesses are looking increasingly commodity-like,
other platform opportunities are emerging. Most of them have to do with networking,
context-sensitivity and/or high-level logical APIs. Specific examples (some
of them overlapping) include:
- Distributed and mobile database topologies;
- Intelligent appliances;
- Speech recognition;
- Document selection application paradigms;
- Heterogeneous information access via "catalapps," a term I've
coined for the new style of application represented by e-commerce, portals,
knowledge management and other "catalogs" of information, goods
- User profiling and personalization; and
- General context sensitivity.
Most of those opportunities, if you think about it, look a lot more like database
management and synchronization, or else application frameworks, than they do
like normal operating system services. The main exceptions would appear to be
intelligent appliances, where the real issue is thin, fast Java and maybe speech
recognition. But even those two categories have strong DBMS or application framework
What Oracle should do
has some interesting strategies for distributed database architectures. In fact,
it has too many of them, including: Larry Ellison's "centralize everything"
stump speech; the forthcoming Oracle Lite central administration via total database
refreshing; and the Raw Iron "simple servers everywhere" strategy.
These various good ideas should be integrated into one brilliant, interoperable
2 Similarly, Oracle needs to get
its data/ app server integration clarified. Everybody knows that the Oracle
DBMS, the Oracle application server and the Oracle Java Virtual Machine should
(and will eventually) be integrated into one coherent package. So c'mon guys,
do it already.
3 One of Oracle's best "the
database is the operating system" proof points is iFS, the "Internet
File System" due in general availability some time in 1999. The idea is
to simulate the Windows File System over an Oracle DBMS, thereby providing data
integrity and searchability for all kinds of files. Taken together with interMedia,
Oracle 8i's text/graphics datatype handling, this could make for a very interesting
Internet content management platform.
However, iFS as currently explained is still an incomplete product. There are
no tools that make it particularly useful. Oracle should invest in the tools,
and, where appropriate, in getting third-party ISV support. And, since iFS seems
to be a natural candidate for unfortunate performance overhead (a Java DBMS
program replacing native OS services), Oracle should be careful about its performance
tuning to minimize the problem.
4 As I keep pointing out, Oracle
isn't trying hard enough in the ISP (Internet Service Provider) market. Certainly
its never tried a sales push remotely as strong as Microsoft's and Sun's ongoing
efforts. Of course, part of the problem is circular -- ISPs say "no"
to Oracle's products, so it meekly goes away, instead of trying harder to win
But maybe Raw Iron can be made into a product that appeals to ISPs. It's a
long shot; a relatively new product will have trouble gearing up to the kind
of industrial-strength that ISPs should, and someday soon will, demand. But
if Oracle can pull it off, they could have a very nice way to bridge the networking/software
skills gap. This is one long shot that' s worth a bet.
5 Oracle needs to push interMedia
big-time. While Oracle has plenty of advantages over Microsoft among high-end
users, it doesn't really have a lot of differentiation left in DBMS features
for the mainstream market -- except interMedia. Assuming that interMedia finally
works well in 8i -- which I think is likely -- it should be near the center
of Oracle's product and marketing strategies.
6 Oracle should buy Nuance Communications.
Speech recognition is the best shot at destroying Microsoft's monopoly. An acquisition
of Nuance would undoubtedly be brutally expensive. But Microsoft, Cisco and
AOL overpay for immature technologies all the time -- this is one case where
Oracle should do the same thing.
7 (I'd rank this one a lot higher
if I thought Oracle could actually pull it off.) Oracle should try for an across-the-board
software partnership with Sun. Sun's problems in the enterprise software business
are illustrated both by the ongoing JavaSoft fiasco and the botched NetDynamics
merger. Now it has acquired a ton of enterprise software that it has little
idea what to do with. In particular, via its role in the AOL/Netscape deal,
Sun wound up with a second application server (Netscape/Kiva) that will never
be coherently integrated with NetDynamics.
What's more, Sun is committed to ambitious strategies on AOL's behalf that
it isn't at all qualified to carry out. Absent further interesting deals, the
anti-Microsoft coalition will have most of its energy drained by the twin black
holes of IBM and Sun. Sun has proved itself unable to manage a software business,
and there's not a lot of time left for it to keep fooling around trying to learn.
I could keep on going with more ideas indefinitely -- but if Oracle really
hopes to ascend to leadership of the software industry, these seven initiatives
would be an excellent start.