Oracle has a Sun spot

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison talks during his keynote address at Oracle Open World in San Francisco, California September 22, 2010. Credit: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Oracle is pushing itself into a corner, a fantastic money-making corner, but a corner nonetheless.

Oracle’s nothing if tenacious, and they’ve ignored hardware earnings losses to take the recently acquired Sun hardware platform to its next level and renewal with the announcement of the T4 CPU UltraSparc family for its servers. Sun was always a maverick, and its Sparc and UltraSparc processors became the standard bearer for server-based RISC technology. Now it’s dragging Oracle down. Larry Ellison seems to have had a fixation over delivering the Full Meal Deal® to its customers -- hardware, software, services, applications, and integration support. The idea has worked well for others, yet others haven’t publicly bruised so many on the way up.

Oracle’s competitors, HP with its EDS integration force, and IBM’s mainframes, servers, and developer network have provided intense competition that made the Oracle-Sun deal sound initially sensible. But Sun’s hardware has become a burden on earnings. And while Oracle’s recently announced T4-family based Sun hardware is impressive, the move may backfire despite impressive T4 vision and specs.

Here’s why: No rational IT executive doubts Oracle’s database infrastructure, and Oracle’s applications suites hold their own. What Oracle faces is a challenge towards industrial shifts at several levels. One-stop shops for apps have become enormously convenient for CIOs and organizations have become successful with Oracle infrastructure as their business process engines, and Oracle’s developer community is comparatively strong. In fact, the Oracle developer conference next week will likely show the same strength that VMware’s VMWorld recently had -- lots of international smiling faces.

Oracle’s cloud infrastructure is perceived as less desirable, as fewer and fewer non-Oracle apps are developed on Sun and Solaris, as this combo is perceived as Oracle-centric. There are no Windows server hosts running on an Oracle Sun cloud; they’re not compatible. Solaris, a traditionally rock-solid Unix foundation, no longer has OpenSolaris community support, not that it was huge to begin with. OpenSolaris has been essentially disbanded along with numerous other open source projects. Indeed I’ve yet to find a single independent cloud hosting environment that will spin up instances of Oracle for you at all. If indeed there are cloud organizations hosting Solaris, they’re certainly not wearing this fact on their sleeve. Oracle’s T4-powered Solaris operating system will run lots of VMs, but not one of those VMs will be Windows and only a few will be non-Oracle Linux.

Open source warmth that Sun’s protagonism (actually conversion) spawned into community warmth has met the test of business model credulity at Oracle, and Oracle seems to have systematically disappointed the FOSS community. The open source community watched Oracle almost immediately toast OpenSolaris and cause splits in MySQL, and OpenOffice. Other actions seem to have caused forks in other formerly Sun-sponsored open source development projects. Adding Oracle Linux was a chess move against Microsoft, but also Red Hat, Attachmate/Novell/SUSE, and Canonical. Red Hat went out of its way to make Oracle Linux more difficult to develop for, somewhat isolating Oracle’s Linux fascination.

Some developers quietly voiced betrayal watching Oracle’s treatment of Java’s licensing in its famous litigation with Google over Android. Sun’s character towards open source development was indeed much different. In all, Oracle has gained few open source advocates, although its distribution of Linux has a few friends, Red Hat not likely among them.

Oracle’s famously antagonistic relationship with HP and Google, have garnered much negative press. The intense volume of litigation and patent claims look like the weak defense of a has-been (are you listening, Steve?). Oracle’s mad litigation with HP over HP’s heavily invested Itanium platform seemed to have nothing to do with the Itanium, rather, the firing of Mark Hurd (handily snapped up by Oracle) and the hiring of a sordid competitor’s CEO, Leo Apotheker, now departed. With Oracle’s legal department so wired, does Oracle scare away potentially useful liaisons? Will it stand alone because the onus of litigation is so steep and electrical?

Although a port of Linux onto the T4 is likely -- still unannounced -- Oracle risks becoming tethered ideologically to Sun, and vice-versa. Oracle’s pugnacious posture doesn’t settle well with developers. While the T4 family might be the next generation of Sparc and Oracle’s cannon against IBM (HP wasn’t mentioned in the press releases to no one’s surprise), Oracle may become increasingly perceived as isolated and monolithic, rather than a team player within the industry.

I’m a processor geek. Oracle’s T4 looks pretty interesting, its advanced architecture and considerable prowess should earn it respect. Oracle misses a huge opportunity to be perceived as an open and entrepreneurial player in T4 family development. But they’d also have to think like a supporter of open source. And they’d have to corral their intense instinct to litigate and browbeat. I’m not sure they will. You don’t have to necessarily like your partners. But you can’t dismiss them.

Sun Tzu’s Art of War, a book I’ve seen on bookshelves at Oracle, only speaks of war, not of prosperity.

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