Historical notes on software titan Oracle (once called Relational Software, Inc.). Related subjects include:
- Database management systems
- One-time arch-rival Ingres
- (in DBMS2) Present-day Oracle in the database, middleware, and analytic technology markets
- (in The Monash Report) Operational and strategic issues for Oracle
Larry Ellison had an official job change, and will be CTO and Executive Chairman of Oracle — with the major product groups reporting to him — instead of CEO. I first met Larry 31 years ago, and hung out with him quite a bit at times. So this feels like time for a retrospective.
For starters, let me say:
- I met Larry Ellison the same year I learned of him, which was 1983. We were in fairly active touch until the late 1990s. Then we drifted apart. That period corresponds roughly to the eras I characterized in my Oracle history overview as Hypergrowth, Plateau, and Professionalism.
- With Larry as with other “larger than life” industry figures I’ve met, what you get in private and what you see in public are pretty similar. I’ve had high-intensity dinner conversations with Larry (numerous times), Bill Gates (a few times) and Ross Perot (once) that are quite in line with their public demeanors.
- With Larry, facts can be mutable things. The first time I met him, I came away with the impression he had a PhD. The second time, it was only a masters degree. Ten years later, he’d almost graduated from the University of Chicago, but had failed or not take a French exam. And I gather his educational resume has retreated a little further since.
- Larry is hilarious, in a scathing way, and an excellent story-teller. Unfortunately, his humor rarely translates well to out-of-context print.
Some anecdotes: Read more
As part of my series on the keys to and likelihood of success, I’d like to consider some historical examples in various categories of data management.
A number of independent mainframe-based pre-relational DBMS vendors “crossed the chasm”, but none achieved anything resembling market dominance; that was reserved for IBM. Success when they competed against each other seemed to depend mainly on product merits and the skills of individual sales people or regional sales managers.
IBM killed that business by introducing DB2, a good product with very good strategic marketing from a still-dominant vendor. By “very good strategic marketing” I mean that IBM both truly invented and successfully market-defined the relational DBMS concept, including such conceptual compromises as:
- Ted Codd’s 12 rules, not that anybody — even IBM — actually followed them all.
- SQL as the standard, rather than the probably superior QUEL.
In the minicomputer world, however, hardware vendors lacked such power, and independent DBMS vendors thrived. Indeed, Oracle and Ingres rode to success on the back of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and other minicomputer vendors, including the payments they got to port their products to various platforms.* The big competitive battle was Oracle vs. Ingres, about which I can say for starters: Read more
The commercial computing, software and services industries have existed for half a century or so each. It might be interesting to review how their pricing and delivery models have evolved over time.
1960s and 1970s
Modern IT is commonly dated from the introduction of the IBM 360 mainframe in 1964-5. But even before then, there was a growing industry in what we’d now call outsourced services, specifically in payroll processing; major players included Automatic Data Processing (ADP), the company that gave us Senator Frank Lautenberg, and a variety of banks. This was (and to this day remains) a comprehensive service, priced by unit of work (e.g., number of payroll checks cut).
IBM mainframes, which quickly came to dominate the market, were in the 1960s and 70s commonly rented. IBM software that ran on them was hence typically priced on a rental/subscription basis as well. The independent packaged software companies, however, often preferred to get paid up front,* and hence sold perpetual licenses to their software. Annual maintenance fees for the licensed software started in the range of 10% of the perpetual license or even less, but migrated up to today’s 20-22% range.
|Categories: Analytics, Application software, ASK Computer Systems, Computer Associates, Computer services, Cullinet, EDS, IBM, MSA, Oracle||6 Comments|
Recently I expressed doubts about Actian’s DBMS-conglomerate growth strategy. For context, perhaps I should review other DBMS vendors’ acquisition strategies in the past. Some — quite a few — worked out well; others — including many too minor to list — did not.
In the pre-relational days, it was common practice to buy products that hadn’t succeeded yet, and grow with them. Often these were programs written at enterprises, rather than third-party packages. Most of Cullinet’s product line, including its flagship DBMS IDMS, was came into the company that way. ADR, if memory serves, acquired the tiny vendor who created DATACOM/DB.
Then things slowed down. A Canadian insurance company oddly bought Computer Corporation of America, to utter non-success. (At least I got an investment banking finder’s fee on the deal.) Computer Associates, which did brilliantly in acquiring computer operations software, had a much rockier time with DBMS. It acquired Cullinet, Applied Data Research, and ASK/Ingres — among others — and didn’t have much growth or other joy with any of them.
Indeed, Ingres has been acquired three times, and hasn’t accomplished much for any of the acquirers (ASK, Computer Associates, Actian).
I used to think that Oracle’s acquisition of RDB provided key pieces of what became Oracle’s own extensibility technology. Andy Mendelsohn, however, disputed this vehemently — at least by his standards of vehemence — and his sources are better than mine. Rather, I now believe as I wrote in 2011:
… while Oracle’s track record with standalone DBMS acquisitions is admirable (DEC RDB, MySQL, etc.), Oracle’s track record of integrating DBMS acquisitions into the Oracle product itself is not so good. (Express? Essbase? The text product line? None of that has gone particularly well.)
Experiences were similar for some other relational DBMS pioneers. Read more
|Categories: Applied Data Research, ASK Computer Systems, Computer Associates, Cullinet, Database management systems, IBM, Informix, Ingres, Microsoft, Oracle, Sybase, Teradata||1 Comment|
The single company whose history people most often ask me about is Oracle. That makes sense — Oracle is a hugely important company, which I’ve known for almost all of its 30-year commercial life. And of course, this being the week of Oracle OpenWorld, Oracle is top-of-mind.
Let’s start with a breezy overview, setting the stage for more detailed posts to follow. As I see it, there have been four eras at Oracle, which between them reflect just about every tech company management theory I can think of.
Startup: This period comprised initial development, custom contract with the US military (CIA, I think, even though the demo database was always naval), and initial product release. This is the one phase of Oracle’s history I didn’t witness personally. But it seems to have been pretty much a story of “build a minimum viable product for a great vision, and hustle until somebody buys it.”
Hypergrowth: Roughly speaking, Oracle grew 100% per year on its way from $5 million in revenue to $1 billion. This period formed much of the basis for Geoffrey Moore’s famous “Crossing the Chasm” series of books. In line with Moore’s later observations, Oracle’s priorities in this period were: Read more
I blogged a little last year about the rewards and challenges of combining professional services and software in a mature company’s business model. My main example was Oracle. But other examples from Oracle’s history might have been equally instructive. For example:
- Oracle started out doing what amounted to custom development for government (military/intelligence) clients.
- Even when Oracle said it had productized its software, the stuff didn’t work very well without services to get it running.
- Oracle and Ingres both got a huge fraction of their early revenue* from deals to port their software to various brands of hardware. That’s a lot like professional services.
- Oracle’s huge Tools Group grew out of professional services, if I have the story straight. Indeed, its first product was written by later long-time group chief Sohaib Abbasi when he was a consultant.
Oracle pretty much doubled revenue every year until it got around the $1 billion level. Then things got tougher, industry-standard revenue recognition scandals not excepted. At one point there were only three buildings on the Oracle campus, with large portions of them eerily empty. But the ship righted itself, best exemplified by three transitions:
- Mature financial management arrived in the person of Jeff Henley.
- A serious commitment to product quality emerged, often credited to the late Bob Koii.
- Mike Fields* brought enterprise-class adult supervision to Oracle’s US field operations.
Political battles still raged at Oracle — Mike Fields vs. Craig Conway, Terry Garnett vs. Jerry Baker, and later on Mark Benioff vs. pretty much everybody. But the company was ready to move to next level. Read more
Roland Bouman reminded us on Twitter of an old post I did on another blog about Ingres history, the guts of which was:
Ingres and Oracle were developed around the same time, in rapidly-growing startup companies. Ingres generally was the better-featured product, moving a little earlier than Oracle into application development tools, distributed databases, etc., whereas Oracle seems to be ahead on the most important attributes, such as SQL compatibility — Oracle always used IBM’s suggested standard of SQL, while Ingres at first used the arguably superior Quel from the INGRES research project. Oracle eventually pulled ahead on superior/more aggressive sales and marketing.
Then in the 1990s, Ingres just missed the DBMS architecture boat. Oracle, Informix, Microsoft, and IBM all came out with completely new products, based respectively on Oracle + Rdb, Informix + a joint Ingres/Sequent research project, Sybase, and mainframe DB2. Ingres’s analogous effort basically floundered, in no small part because they made the pound-wise, penny-foolish decision to walk away from a joint venture research product they’d undertaken with innovative minicomputer vendor Sequent in the Portland, OR area.
Computer Associates bought Ingres in mid-1994, and immediately brought me in to do a detailed strategic evaluation. (Charles Wang telephoned the day the acquisition closed, in one of the more surprising phone calls I’ve ever gotten, but I digress … Anyhow, the relevant NDA agreements, legal and moral alike, have long since expired.) There was nothing terribly wrong with the product, but unfortunately there was nothing terribly right either. Aggressive investment — e.g., to get fully competitive in parallelism and object/relational functionality, the two biggest competitive differentiators in those days — would have been no guarantee of renewed market success.
Notwithstanding the economic question marks, CA surprised me with its enthusiasm for taking on these technical challenges. But another problem reared its head — almost all the core developers left the company. (If you weren’t willing to sign a noncompete agreement that was utterly ridiculous in those days, at least in the hot Northern California market, you couldn’t keep your job post-merger.) And so, like almost all CA acquisitions outside of the system management/security/data center areas, Ingres fell further and further behind the competition.
Some of the same information made it into my post here on Ingres history later the same year, but for some reason not all did.
On April Fool’s Day, it is traditional to spread false stories that you hope will sound true. Last year, however, I decided to do the opposite – I posted some true stories that, at least for a moment, sounded implausible or false. This year I’m going to try to turn the idea into a kind of blog-tagging meme.*
*A blog-tagging meme is, in essence, an internet chain letter without the noxious elements.
Without further ado, the Rules of the No-Fooling Meme are:
Rule 1: Post on your blog 1 or more surprisingly true things about you,* plus their explanations. I’m starting off with 10, but it’s OK to be a lot less wordy than I’m being. I suggest the following format:
- A noteworthy capsule sentence. (Example: “I was not of mortal woman born.”)
- A perfectly reasonable explanation. (Example: “I was untimely ripped from my mother’s womb. In modern parlance, she had a C-section.”)
*If you want to relax the “about you” part, that’s fine too.
Rule 2: Link back to this post. That explains what you’re doing.
Rule 3: Drop a link to your post into the comment thread. That will let people who check here know that you’ve contributed too.
Rule 4: Ping 1 or more other people encouraging them to join in the meme with posts of their own.
Hopefully, the end result of all this will be that we all know each other just a little bit better! And hopefully we’ll preserve some cool stories as well.
To kick it off, here are my entries. (Please pardon any implied boastfulness; a certain combustibility aside, I’ve lived a pretty fortunate life.)
I was physically evicted by hotel security from a DBMS vendor’s product announcement venue. It was the Plaza Hotel in NYC, at Cullinet’s IDMS/R announcement. Phil Cooper, then Cullinet’s marketing VP, blocked my entrance to the ballroom for the main event, and then called hotel security to have me removed from the premises.
A few years later, the same Phil Cooper stood me up for a breakfast meeting in his own house in Wellesley. When one’s around Phil Cooper, weird things just naturally happen. Read more
In case you missed it, I’ve had a couple of recent conversations about the TPC-H benchmark. Some people suggest that, while almost untethered from real-world computing, TPC-Hs inspire real world product improvements. Richard Gostanian even offered a specific example of same — Solaris-specific optimizations for the ParAccel Analytic Database.
That thrilling advance notwithstanding, I’m not aware of much practical significance to any TPC-H-related DBMS product development. But multiple people this week have reminded me this week the TPC-A and TPC-B played a much greater role spurring product development in the 1990s. And I indeed advised clients in those days that they’d better get their TPC results up to snuff, because they’d be at severe competitive disadvantage until they did.
It’s tough to be precise about examples, because few vendors will admit they developed important features just to boost their benchmark scores. But it wasn’t just TPCs — I recall marketing wars around specific features (row-level locking, nested subquery) or trade-press benchmarks (PC World?) as much as around actual TPC benchmarks. Indeed, Oracle had an internal policy called WAR, which stood for Win All Reviews; trade press benchmarks were just a subcase of that.
And then there’s Dave DeWitt’s take. Dave told me yesterday at SIGMOD that it’s unfortunate Jim Gray-inspired debit/credit TPCs won out over the Wisconsin benchmarks, because that led the industry down the path of focusing on OLTP at the expense of decision support/data warehousing. Whether or not the causality is as strict as Dave was suggesting, it’s hard to dispute that mainstream DBMS met or exceeded almost all users’ OTLP performance needs by early in his millenium. And it’s equally hard to dispute that those systems* performance on analytic workloads, as of last year, still needed a great deal of improvement.