Making Oracle Applications Easier

When British Telecommunications PLC decided last year to upgrade to a

newer version of Oracle Applications, Oracle Corp.'s suite of back-end

business management software, the London-based communications company

faced an expensive "wither and die" migration process for its data,

says systems development accountant Chris Lacey.

That approach would create two diverging Oracle Applications

implementations: one with several instances of the old version

containing the historical data collected before the change, and another

running on the new software version that combined invoice and ordering

information from departments within the company's wireless division.

Then, at an Oracle user's conference last spring, Lacey came across

Crystallize Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich. The start-up's software automates

the process of merging different implementations of Oracle

Applications, changing the underlying database fields and restructuring

financial systems.

What previously required custom scripts, a raft of consultants and a

brute-force approach can be done in-house within a few months, claims

Joshua Greenbaum, a principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting in

Daly City, Calif. "Crystallize is trying to solve an age-old problem

that has typically been solved the hard way," he says.

Using Crystallize's software, British Telecom was able to combine its

multiple instances of Oracle Applications before its planned upgrade.

The process took five months instead of the year or more that Lacey

predicted, and he estimates the company will save as much as 1 million

pounds because of the unified data stores. In addition, he says,

historical data can migrate into the new software, allowing the company

to provide better customer service because of that integrated database.

At the center of Crystallize's software is a patented rules engine

developed by CEO and former Oracle consultant Helene Abrams. The rules

describe patterns common to most implementations of Oracle

Applications, she says.

The engine focuses on many areas, including undocumented Oracle

processes, like the sequence of loading relational databases, and

general database-merging techniques, including more than 27 methods of

data mining. The software confirms each rule by examining live data,

she says, and constantly updates the repository with each customer

project.

The basic capabilities of Crystallize's software, says Abrams, are

copying, changing, filtering and merging data. Those processes are

combined into more than 20 applications that focus on specific business

needs.

Users first describe their company's business logic, then use

Crystallize's software to search existing databases to uncover the

underlying database rules encoded in triggers and procedures. They then

combine those with the built-in rules in the repository and generate

the commands to perform the conversion. The source data is "frozen,"

then transferred to a temporary store while it's converted. A cutover

process picks up the interim transactions and populates the data into a

new implementation of Oracle Applications.

Risks and benefits

Greenbaum says Crystallize takes away two major causes of pain: the

high price of converting financial systems and the long time frame

required. And because it's a packaged set of processes, he says,

Crystallize software has a better chance of working well the first

time.

Lacey warns, however, that his project still required significant

resources. British Telecom had to put people versed in the firm's

business processes and its Oracle software on the project. In addition,

he says the number of machines needed to hold the interim data transfer

was larger than he expected. The project took five months -- one month

longer than planned due to problems gathering those necessary human and

physical resources.

Another caveat: Crystallize's rules engine is version-dependent,

acknowledges Abrams. Right now, it works with Oracle Versions 10.7,

11.03 and 11i.

The company's goal, says Abrams, is to spread the same approach to

other database-driven applications, such as enterprise resource

planning and supply-chain management packages, allowing customers to

update and change the software installations in concert with new

business structures and changing data needs.

Package deal

There's no product that competes directly with Crystallize's offering

for Oracle Applications change management, says Joshua Greenbaum, a

principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting.

The traditional brute-force methods for integrating Oracle Applications

databases require using internal IT staff or hiring consulting firms,

he says. That approach can be expensive and time-consuming. But by

packaging the process, Greenbaum explains, Crystallize can give

customers a completion time and projected cost with a high degree of

confidence in hitting those marks.

Another advantage to Crystallize is that the migrated data is clean and

accurate. Maintaining data integrity, normalization and removing

duplicate and garbage data are of key importance in this kind of

project, says Greenbaum. Crystallize is good at making sure that the

data is right, he says, and the company backs it up with testing and

validation. The brute-force method that many consultants use can't

offer the same promise of accuracy, he says.

IT consulting firms are likely to adopt a packaged software methodology

in the future, says Helene Abrams, CEO of Crystallize. Her company is

working with several large consulting firms, she says, training them on

Crystallize's tools and hoping to form working relationships. Abrams

says she doesn't see consultants -- or for that matter, Oracle itself,

a natural choice to enter the market -- becoming competitors.

Greenbaum agrees, adding that consulting firms have a billable-hours

business model, not a software licensing model. He says Crystallize's

future competition is more likely to come from a company similar to

itself: an Oracle third-party partner.

The market for Crystallize's software is limited. Since it's focused

solely on particular versions of Oracle Applications, the number of

potential customers ranges from about 5,000 to 7,000, says Greenbaum.

And only those companies that have a business need -- a merger, a spin-

off or another change that makes it preferable to modify the underlying

database structures of their back-end applications -- are likely to be

interested.

But even if another firm was to tackle the same problem, Greenbaum

says, it will take the right combination of Oracle experience and start-

up talent to build the necessary products. "It was an opportunity that

existed for a long time but waited for the right entrepreneurial

outlook to take advantage of it,"he says.

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