Stack envy: Impressions for Oracle OpenWorld 2010

Last year, the anticipation of the unveiling of Fusion apps was palpable. Although we’re not finished with Oracle OpenWorld 2010 yet – we still have the Fusion middleware analyst summit tomorrow and still have loose ends regarding Oracle’s Java strategy – by now our overall impressions are fairly code complete.

In his second conference keynote – which unfortunately turned out to be almost a carbon copy of his first – Larry Ellison boasted that they “announced more new technology this week than anytime in Oracle’s history.” Of course, that shouldn’t be a heavy lift given that Oracle is a much bigger company with many more products across the portfolio, and with Sun, has a much broader hardware/software footprint at that.

On the software end – and post-Sun acquisition, we have to make that distinction – it’s hard to follow up last year’s unveiling of Fusion apps. The Fusion apps are certainly a monster in size with over 5000 tables, 10,000 task flows, representing five years of development. Among other things, the embedded analytics provide the context long missing from enterprise apps like ERP and CRM, which previously required you to slip into another module as a separate task. There is also good integration of process modeling, although for now BPM models developed using either of Oracle’s modeling tools won’t be executable. For now, Fusion apps will not change the paradigm of model, then develop.

A good sampling of coverage and comment can be found from Ray Wang, Dennis Howlett, Therese Poletti, Stefan Ried, and for the Java side, Lucas Jellema.

The real news is that Fusion apps, excluding manufacturing, will be in limited release by year end and general release in Q1. That’s pretty big news.

But at the conference, Fusion apps took a back seat to Exadata, the SPARC HP (and soon to be SPARC)-based database appliance unveiled last year, and the Exalogic cloud-in-a-box unwrapped this year. It’s no mystery that growth in the enterprise apps market has been flat for quite some time, with the main Greenfield opportunities going forward being midsized businesses or the BRIC world region. Yet Fusion apps will be overkill for small-midsized enterprises that won’t need such a rich palette of functionality (NetSuite is more likely their speed), which leaves the emerging economies as the prime growth target. The reality is most enterprises are not about to replace the very ERP systems that they implemented as part of modernization or Y2K remediation efforts a decade ago. At best, Fusion will be a gap filler, picking up where current enterprise applications leave off, which provides potential growth opportunity for Oracle, but not exactly a blockbuster one.

Nonetheless, as Oracle was historically a software company, the bulk of attendees along with the press and analyst community (including us) pretty much tuned out all the hardware talk. That likely explains why, if you subscribed to the #oow10 Twitter hashtag, that you heard nothing but frustration from software bigots like ourselves and others who got sick of the all-Exadata/ Exalogic-all-the-time treatment during the keynotes.

In a memorable metaphor, Ellison stated that one Exalogic device can schedule the entire Chinese rail system, and that two of them could run Facebook – to which a Twitter user retorted, how many enterprises have the computing load of a Facebook?

Frankly, Larry Ellison has long been at the point in his life where he can afford to disregard popular opinion. Give a pure hardware talk Sunday night, then do it almost exactly again on Wednesday (although on the second go round we were also treated to a borscht belt routine taking Salesforce’s Mark Benioff down more than a peg on who has the real cloud). Who is going to say no to the guy who sponsored and crewed on the team that won the America’s cup?

But if you look at the dollars and sense opportunity for Oracle, it’s all about owning the full stack that crunches and manages the data. Even in a recession, if there’s anything that’s growing, it’s the amount of data that’s floating around. Combine the impacts of broadband, sensory data, and lifestyles that are becoming more digital, and you have the makings for the data counterpart to Metcalfe’s Law. Owning the hardware closes the circle. Last year, Ellison spoke of his vision to recreate the unity of the IBM System 360 era, because at the end of the day, there’s nothing that works better than software and hardware that are tuned for each other.

So if you want to know why Ellison is talking about almost nothing else except hardware, it’s not only because it’s his latest toy (OK, maybe it’s partly that). It’s because if you run the numbers, there’s far more growth potential to the Exadata/Exalogic side of the business than there is for Fusion applications and middleware.

And if you look at the positioning, owning the entire stack means deeper account control. It’s the same strategy behind the entire Fusion software stack, which uses SOA to integrate internally and with the rest of the world. But Fusion apps and middleware remain optimized for an all-Oracle Fusion environment,underpinned by a declarative Application Development Framework (ADF) and tooling that is designed specifically for that stack.

So on one hand, Oracle’s pitch that big database processing works best on optimized hardware can sound attractive to CIOs that are seeking to optimize one of their nagging points of pain. But the flipside is that, given Oracle’s reputation for aggressive sales and pricing, will the market be receptive to giving Oracle even more control? To some extent the question is moot; with Oracle having made so many acquisitions, enterprises that followed a best of breed strategy can easily find themselves unwittingly becoming all-Oracle shops by default.

Admittedly, the entire IT industry is consolidating, but each player is vying for different combinations of the hardware, software, networking, and storage stack. Arguably, applications are the most sensitive layer of the IT technology stack because that is where the business logic lies. As Oracle asserts greater claim to that part of the IT stack and everything around it, it requires a strategy for addressing potential backlash from enterprises seeking second sources when it comes to managing their family jewels.

Please Keep the LightSwitch on

It’s seems almost quaint to think that once upon a time, you really had to be a rocket scientist to develop software. OK, correct that, computer scientist. Your IDE was a cryptic command line text editor, and you freelanced debugging manually. That’s OK, that was during the cowboy days of appdev, when ideas like objects, components, or models were considered the stuff of idle dreams. Besides, what self-respecting programmer (we didn’t call them developers back then) would ever condescend to using somebody else’s code? Real coders only need command lines, and they don’t need formalized architecture to tell them how to program.

Roughly 25 years ago, what was then Borland introduced the integrated development environment, and several years after that, Microsoft blew the lid out of that market with the first programming language that was really designed for, to borrow Apple’s terminology, “the rest of us: Visual Basic. For the first time, here was a language that was fairly easy to learn; offering lots of flexibility; and taaping the innovations of visual development, it made software development more intuitive. As God’s gift to liberal arts majors, they now could get paid for doing something other than waiting tables, driving cabs, or teaching art history or philosophy.

Of course, lowering barriers to entry allows the unwashed masses in, and yes, there is sound argument to say that allowing anybody to program would lower the quality of coding. Yet, democratizing development became essential because in the early 90s, the coming boom in client/server, followed by web developed, unleashed an enormous appetite for applications for which there weren’t enough computer scientists in the world to deliver. Even with bandwidth bringing millions of Indian, Chinese, and Ukrainian developers online, supply is still mismatched with demand. While you might think about outsourcing large projects or maintenance, it is simply impractical to task teams located over a dozen time zones away (not to mention language or cultural barriers) to churn out the kinds of quick, tactical applications that some agile team in a corner could crank out in days.

Not surprisingly, the democratization of development unleashed by Visual Basic and almost every development tool after made it possible for the IT profession to meet demand; it didn’t create it. But not surprisingly, with all that sloppy coding out there, emergence of robust frameworks like Java EE and .NET attempted to clean up the mess with frameworks that required disciplined practices like strongly typed coding. But as the laws of physics predict counter reaction to every action, dynamic scripting languages like PHP and Ruby emerged to provide the ease and lightweight that the top down frameworks forgot.

Anyway, it is difficult to make it through a vendor briefing call these days without hearing bromides on how they are making their tools accessible to “business developers” – as if there is such a class of people in the business who do software development. What they are really saying is that they have tools for business stakeholders who have day jobs to, by the way, craft quick little productivity or business insight apps with their drag and drop tools on the side. It’s the same thing that we have heard from players like Zoho which seem more like cloud platforms for developing trivial apps of little meaning.

Therefore our ear perked up with Microsoft’s release of LightSwitch, which provides a simpler path to developing real data-centric .NET applications. We’ll spare you the details because Andrew Brust has explained them much better than we could, and is hoping that LightSwitch might become part of “a long overdue turnaround” from Microsoft’s last decade of “courting complexity.”

We share his hopes, but our optimism is a bit more measured. Microsoft doesn’t exactly have a great track record backing innovation these days. A couple years ago, it had a similar kind of great idea with Oslo, an innovative attempt to make modeling of data-driven applications (do we see a pattern here?) more developer-centric through a coding-oriented approach. Less than a year after unveiling Oslo, Microsoft backtracked and made it a development pattern for SQL Server. Let’s hope that on this go round, Microsoft has the patience and perseverance to keep the LightSwitch on.