Oracle to put on its innovation game face at OpenWorld

Analyst: Oracle will attempt to out-cool Salesforce.com at its upcoming conference

Oracle's annual OpenWorld conference is less than a week away, and as usual the vendor is expected to make a slew of new product and strategy announcements.

This year's show is set to be bigger than ever, but it's not clear whether OpenWorld's energy level will match that generated by rival Salesforce.com's Dreamforce conference, which occurs in November, said analyst Ray Wang, CEO of Constellation Research.

"Oracle's challenge is that it has to figure out how to take its current customer base and help them move to become a more innovative customer base," Wang said. "Salesforce has early adopters and people that believe in the religion, and Oracle has people that are just keeping the lights on and trying to cut costs."

But Oracle is making a series of changes for this year's show, according to Wang. "What they're trying to do at OpenWorld is infuse some sense of innovation," he said. "They're really trying to amp up the marketing and be more relevant to newer buyers."

Here's a look at some of the expected highlights of the show, which begins Sunday.

Database detonation: Oracle CEO Larry Ellison built his legendary career around the company's flagship database, and he's set to kick off OpenWorld on Sunday with a keynote discussing the latest release, 12c, as well as upcoming enhancements for in-memory computing.

Expect Ellison to hit the stage with a full quiver of poison arrows to fire at the competition, particularly SAP, which has been promoting its HANA in-memory database as an alternative for customers now running SAP on Oracle.

It's often said that vendors who find themselves in Ellison's cross-hairs should be pleased, because it means he considers them a viable threat. Still, thick skins are recommended, given past Ellison jibes like his characterization of Salesforce.com as a "roach motel" of cloud services.

Engineered systems: Past OpenWorld events have featured a heavy emphasis on Oracle's "engineered systems," which combine its software with Sun hardware, to the point where it seemed like Oracle was overestimating its software-centric audience's interest in such products.

This year, while one keynote will target engineered systems, it will be a joint effort between software development chief Thomas Kurian and John Fowler, executive vice president of systems.

Their job will be to spell out a future vision wherein all Oracle applications and middleware customers can see themselves one day running substantially all of their operations on Oracle hardware.

Cloud computing: This topic might be the wild card of the show. Ellison's second keynote of the event will focus on Oracle's cloud efforts, which range from PaaS (platform as a service) to enterprise applications. Close watchers of Oracle's cloud strategy will be looking for Ellison to fill in some specific gaps, such as the readiness state of its Oracle Social Network, which was announced some time ago.

The same keynote block will feature an appearance from Brad Anderson, corporate vice president of cloud and enterprise engineering at Microsoft. The vendors recently announced a partnership that will in part see Oracle's database available on the Microsoft Azure cloud service. Anderson will discuss how the companies are "working together to help customers embrace cloud computing by improving flexibility and choice while also preserving first class support for mission-critical workloads," according to a description.

One also has to wonder whether Ellison's cloud keynote will feature a second guest, namely Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff. After a long-standing public rivalry, the two outspoken executives have seemingly buried the hatchet following the announcement of a pact under which Salesforce.com will commit long-term to using Oracle technologies in its cloud platform.

Benioff has already invited Ellison to Dreamforce, and returning the favor would make up for Ellison's abrupt cancellation of a Benioff appearance scheduled for an OpenWorld event in 2011.

Big data, big hype: There are few industry buzzwords more prevalent of late than "big data," and Oracle won't shy away from using it at OpenWorld. Co-President Mark Hurd's first keynote will be on big data, but the good news for attendees is that they'll get a bit more than a Hurd sales pitch.

Scheduled to join Hurd onstage will be guests from Oracle customers Thomson Reuters and NYSE Euronext, who will discuss their big data initiatives, presumably ones using Oracle technology.

Customer experience: That said, it's a little bit difficult to spot CRM (customer relationship management) on OpenWorld show materials. Instead, Oracle will spell out its strategy for "customer experience," an emerging phrase that encompasses not only software for sales automation, but also marketing, social analytics and mobility.

Hurd will also lead this keynote, and is set to be joined by customers from Tesco and LEGO.

Internet of things: OpenWorld 2013 will also serve as the launch pad for Oracle's push into the "Internet of things," or machine-to-machine communications. The breadth of Oracle's plans here is evidenced by the fact that a keynote on the topic will be delivered by Chief Corporate Architect Edward Screven, who has been at Oracle for nearly 30 years and reports directly to Ellison.

Fusion Applications: Oracle's next-generation Fusion Applications may get mention in Ellison's cloud keynote, but unlike past years, don't appear to be part of the company's top announcements at the conference.

Progress on Fusion Applications may have to be gleaned from conference sessions, of which plenty are scheduled. Planned topics include general road map details; integration between Fusion Applications and products such as E-Business Suite; and how to tailor, customize and build cloud-based extensions for Fusion.

While there's no shortage of scheduled content for Fusion Applications this year, what will be telling is how well-attended the sessions are. In past years, Fusion session rooms were filled to capacity, suggesting significant early interest in the products from customers running older product lines.

Oracle has reported steady but not spectacular sales for Fusion Applications so far, but at the same time has stressed that customers can move to the products at a time and manner of their choosing.

The real test may be whether Oracle can showcase a customer running Fusion Applications in a truly end-to-end manner, rather than just a few modules.

Dell, do tell: Dell CEO Michael Dell is scheduled to deliver a keynote at the show in what could be his first high-profile speech since the company went private last week after a long struggle. He is set to discuss "Dell's evolution into a leading provider of scalable, end-to-end solutions that help customers compete, win, and thrive in today's global marketplace," according to an event description.

Earnings watch: OpenWorld will begin just days after Oracle reports its first-quarter fiscal 2014 earnings. While the quarter isn't typically Oracle's largest, weak results could put a damper on the OpenWorld party vibe, while strong ones would give Ellison and company something additional to crow about.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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