Oracle OpenWorld 2006: The Tech Conference that Ate San Francisco

Oh, my aching feet! I've definitely got to get some better shoes... or lose some weight. (Weight Watchers or the Ecco store? Do I spend 200 bucks on loafers just so I can keep gobbling Chunky Monkey? Hmmm…)

No, I'm not sore from practicing for the next season of ''Dancing with the Stars.'' My dogs are still barking after five days at Oracle OpenWorld 2006. The Big O took up all three wings of San Francisco's Moscone Center last week for this humungous event, filled every available downtown hotel conference room, and blocked off Howard Street with tents and Vegas-sized video displays. About 42,000 conference attendees swarmed over three square blocks of the City by the Bay for keynotes, educational sessions, vendor exhibits, and special events. On Tuesday night, about 20,000 attendees spilled into the Cow Palace for a conference-sponsored rock concert. On the bill: Elton John, Joan Jett, Berlin, and Devo. A football-field-length stage with seven (count 'em, seven) massive video displays dominated the keynote auditorium. Conference organizers even put Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's racing yacht on display at the foot of the escalators in the North Hall. It was easily the biggest and flashiest local conference I've seen in 10 years of tech-trade-show hopping.

Still, size is a relative thing. As Gartner analyst Kim Collins pointed out to me, if Oracle's boast that it now has 265,000 customers is accurate, the show drew just over 15 percent of the company's client base. ''That's still very good,'' Collins said, ''but it's really to be expected, given the company's recent acquisitions.''

Good point: After three years of a different kind of gobbling, the Redwood Shores, CA-based company has moved beyond its core database business into the applications market, bringing with it a lot of customers with a lot of questions. ''The size of the show is indicative of the sheer number of people who have questions about what the company is going to be doing with their applications,'' Collins said. ''I think a lot of these customers –PeopleSoft customers, Siebel customers—come to an event like this to get answers to their questions on a broader level. And, of course, for the opportunity to network with their peers. There's a lot of sharing of information that goes on, not just between Oracle and its customers, but from customer to customer.''

The Oracle announcements from this the sprawling conference and expo were, let's say, to scale. Larry Ellison's revelation during his conference keynote that his company would soon begin offering its own support for the Red Hat Linux distro (Oracle calls it ''Unbreakable Linux'') grabbed big headlines; news that Oracle would be competing with Red Hat on price probably contributed to the subsequent slide of that company's shares.

Oracle is positioning itself as a better Red Hat service provider, Ellison said, to speed adoption of Linux. He claimed that Oracle would maintain code compatibility with patches and updates, and that the company would remove all trademark references in the Red Hat source. Other tech industry heavyweights endorsed the move, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Intel, EMC and BMC. This is Big O's first step into the OS biz, and it's likely to leave heel marks all over Red Hat.

Running a close second in terms of a conference wow was news that Oracle would be joining with HP and Intel in what amounts to an assault on the mainframe market. HP chief Mark Hurd announced the joint 'Application Modernization Initiative' during his conference keynote. The effort is intended to provide the three companies' customers with a solution for modernizing their legacy app portfolios now running on old mainframes.

''More than 65 percent of IT budgets are spent on keeping [mainframes] running,'' Hurd observed. The initiative will rely on SOA principles and enterprise grid computing platforms to provide increased reliability and efficiency without the dependency on legacy mainframe skills, he added.

''This movement toward application modernization has a lot of legs,'' says Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst and founder of ZapThink. ''A lot of companies are still using client-server applications and mainframe applications that never made the transition to the Web. Some of these applications command a high cost of ownership, because they lack flexibility and they use proprietary technologies. Now is the right time [to transition those apps], and SOA is the right strategy.''

Oracle also announced its next-gen ''user interaction environment,'' the Oracle WebCenter Suite. WebCenter is a new component of Oracle Fusion Middleware designed for info workers. It's meant to provide a unified environment that gives users access to biz applications, structured and un-structured content, biz intelligence, enterprise search, biz processes, and communication and collaboration services. The company expects this product to ''provide the first user interaction environment that breaks down the boundaries between Web-based portals, enterprise applications, and Web 2.0 technologies to enable the rapid creation of flexible, context-sensitive work processes.''

Thomas Kurian, Oracle's SVP of server technologies, told attendees about his company's new Business Intelligence Suite, Enterprise Edition. This is a very cool product designed to distill intelligence from existing applications and data sources, and to distribute that intelligence pervasively across the enterprise. Think of it as another bit of ordnance for companies waging war with the piles of data they produce, but from which they can't extract value.

One of the high points of the show for me was John Chambers' keynote. It was the Cisco Systems CEO's first time at an OOW event, so attendees might have been surprised when he all but leapt into the audience a few seconds into his presentation. But it was vintage Chambers; he spoke for an hour and rarely stopped moving. (What does this guy eat? I'm guessing it's not Chunky Monkey.)

''My role is to challenge your thought process,'' Chambers told his audience. ''Am I making you uncomfortable yet?''

Chambers covered a lot of ground (figuratively and literally), but I especially liked his big-picture view of the emerging Web-centric world as it pertains to developers. His twist on former Sun Microsystems' CEO Scott McNealy's well-known catchphrase, ''the network is the computer,'' was the best turn of phrase at the event. ''The network is the platform,'' Chambers told a very uncomfortable guy in the sixth row. As virtualization technologies evolve to encompass storage, processing, and applications, it will enable a new wave of app development on a new generation of intelligent networks, he said.

As we left the Chambers keynote, the sound system cranked up an old Elton John song. Sir Elton's tunes were positively ubiquitous at this show, probably to warm us up for the Cow Palace concert. But this particular song, ''Rocket Man,'' stuck me personally. Back in 2001, I was hard at work on a book about John Chambers when the tech downturn hit and Cisco announced the first big layoffs of the post-bubble era. Until then, the title for my book was Rocket Man: John Chambers and the Stratospheric Rise of Cisco Systems. From its initial public offering in 1990 to the spring of 2000, Cisco's share price had grown by more than 94,000 percent, and Chambers played a pivotal role in that growth, so it fit. By April of 2001, Cisco's shares had fallen 80 percent, erasing more than $400 billion in market value. I was encouraged by the publisher to change the title to John Chambers and the Cisco Way: Managing through Volatility. I still wince at that title—and I still think Chambers is one of the few CEOs in America who really gets IT.

BTW: Despite the many, many, many complaints I heard from SF residents about the traffic snarls caused by the (let's face it) over-the-top blocking off of Howard Street, San Francisco should be very happy to have hosted the Oracle event: The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the show was expected to generate $60 million in revenue for the city.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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