Monday, October 10, 2011

Behind the Oracle-Salesforce Cloud Brawl

Earlier this week, Oracle’s chief executive Larry Ellison went to greater pains than usual to beat up on the competition. Considering the stakes, it was worth it to him.

Speaking at a trade show with 45,000 registered visitors, Ellison announced his companys formal entry into the business of selling software via a public cloud. The cloud is a huge conglomeration of computer technologies. Clouds, and all that they imply for business and society, are the biggest thing going in tech today, promising billions of people access to nearly limitless amounts of computing, data storage, and communications. With that in mind, Oracles entry into the market comes as no surprise.

But what Ellison kicked off, and which competitors he kicked from the stage, says a lot about how this multibillion-dollar cloud business infrastructure build out will proceed. It says as much about the millions of marketing dollars about to be spent by the side pushing for tightly-integrated systems of hardware and software and those on the other side hoping for a world with lots of diverse technologies in play.

Mr. Ellisons main selling point was that both the security and performance of the Oracle cloud would best the competition because his machines were designed from the start by a company that controlled both the main hardware and software. If you design in concert you can do a better job, Mr. Ellison said earlier in the week. Engineering the hardware and the software together, he said, promises, “better performance, better ease of use, and lower cost.” Mr. Ellison says Oracle rewrote over 100 separate business programs, like software for sales management or running a factory, so it would work quickly and coherently in this environment.

It also put Oracle in direct opposition with his emerging competitor, which he said mostly used a less common software language and was less secure, partly because it was constructed by so many diffuse suppliers. It is a very bad security model, Mr. Ellison said, calling Salesforce the roach motel of clouds: You can check in, but you cant check out.

Much of this is typical of the kind of trash-talking people expect at an Oracle show. It followed similar theatrics from Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff earlier in the day, after Oracle cancelled Mr. Benioffs speech to the Oracle faithful. While he still hasnt responded to Mr. Ellisons charges about the performance of his technology, during Mr. Ellisons repeated put-downs of Salesforce, Mr. Benioff took to Twitter and wrote You cant buy this type of advertising. Thank you Larry!

More importantly, the same kind of competition is going on throughout the tech industry. Facebook has published specifications of almost everything in its data centers, from printed circuit boards to building cooling systems. The idea is that others can use parts of this technology themselves, or possibly contribute to its improvement. The Open Data Center Alliance is a collection of more than 300 companies which together represent over $100 billion in annual information technology spending, is also pushing for shared information.

Google, which does use open standards, also keeps many things proprietary. Engineers in the company privately acknowledge that Google has developed specialized semiconductors for some of its in-house operations. It doesnt patent the products, because that would show how they work in the first place. The number of companies that can work at Googles scale is so small and powerful that it felt that would give its opponents an edge.

Oracle is thinking proprietary. Everyones got a cloud, we need a cloud, Mr. Ellison said, awkwardly introducing what he called a breakthrough product. “Ours is a little bit different,” he said. “Data services, Java services, security services are all built in.” Java is a software language developed by Sun Microsystems (which since 2009 is an Oracle subsidiary) that is used to program and deploy computer applications across the Internet. Large corporate databases, Ellison said, could be moved from a companys machine into Oracles cloud, or simply created there, and from there moved back and forth, or into the clouds run by Amazon, I.B.M. or other computing service providers running in Java.

In some ways, this battle is akin to the open source-proprietary software conflicts Linux versus Microsoft, for example – that have gone on for decades, and each side chooses the version that suits its values and business model. Once again, there will likely be significant proof points and areas of dispute around issues like security, cost, and performance.

The clouds being built today, however, have a global reach and scale of capabilities that were barely imagined a few years ago. That raises the stakes potential security breaches involving millions of people, or performance glitches that make or sink a company – and the payoff to whichever company finds the successful formula.

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