We all got it wrong. Client/server didn?t work, admitted Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison this week, before launching into his now overly-familiar anthem in praise of network computing. The trigger for the latest recital was the imminent release of Oracle8, the long awaited upgrade to the company?s core server product and the bedrock of its entire network computing vision.
It?s certainly been a long time in the making. At a pre-release briefing in California this week, Oracle executives emphasised that the product had been in development for over three years. In fact, Oracle8?s roots go back somewhat further, to a sunny morning in Cannes, France in 1991 when Ellison stunned his product managers by declaring in front of the Oracle European User Group that Oracle8 would be a fully object oriented database.
Since then, expectations for the product have scaled both up and down. That early promise of "fully object oriented" has long since been pushed aside and replaced with the promise of a smooth evolution to the hybrid object-relational model. According to Jerry Held, Oracle?s senior vice president of server technologies, this debate is a distraction. "People have homed in on what Larry said back then, but the development [of Oracle8} wasn?t even under way then. Oracle7 hadn?t even been released then," he pointed out.
The major impact on the shape of Oracle8 has been the company?s new-found devotion to network computing and in particular its own Network Computing Architecture (NCA), for which Oracle8 is a cornerstone. This was immediately apparent in the positioning of the database as ?The Database for Network Computing?.
"Oracle8 is network computing," admitted Oracle president Ray Lane. "It enables network computing. As an industry, we?ve gone from mindless devotion to the PC to a situation when the question is ?when is network computing coming?'"
"NCA will drive the competitive dynamics for our business," he added. "If our salesforce talked about Oracle8 without first talking about NCA, then they would yield the basis for our competitiveness. It?s paramount that NCA is the starting point for conversations [with potential customers]."
This point was reiterated by Held, who argued that the database, not operating systems or browsers, is the most criticial piece of software in network computing. "Database software will be to network computing what Windows has been to personal computing," he predicted.
But this new significance brings with it a number of new requirements for databases deployed in network computing environments. They have to have lower costs in terms of availability, manageability and productivity. They have to cater to an expanded user community of Intranet and Internet-enabled users. They need to be able to handle far greater quantities and types of data. And they must be faster, with increased scalability and throughput than before.
Considerable emphasis is being placed on the OLTP capabilities of Oracle8, specifically its ability to scale up to handle tens of thousands of users. New message queuing facilities built into the database are claimed to eliminate much of the burden of message management. The database itself will automatically retain and track messages, making it easier to correlate and query messages through SQL.
In the data warehouse arena, Oracle8 makes use of data partitioning to ease management of tables stored in Very Large Databases. Partitioning also means that, in the event of an outage, only data in those partitions directly affected will become inaccessible.
Size definitely matters with Oracle8, according to Mark Jarvis, senior vice president of server technologies marketing. Whereas Oracle7 handled terabytes of data, Oracle8 can manage tens of terabytes and while Oracle7 was limited to managing 254 columns of data, Oracle8 can handle 1,000 columns.
As for object-relational capabilities, what?s on offer is a long way from Ellison?s original claim of "fully object oriented" and some functionality will not be available until Oracle8.1. Held is unconcerned by this. None of the fully object oriented database companies have managed to break out of their niche markets, he argued, making object-relational a more obvious route to follow. He added that developments such as Java had changed the nature of the market. "It wasn?t even invented when we began Oracle8."
But Java support is not an area on which Oracle should choose to focus customer attention just yet. Java support is offered via JDBC middleware, but native Java in the server itself will not appear before Oracle8.1. JSQL, the Java-flavoured SQL implementation, will appear in the client prior to 8.1, but not in the server.
Oracle8 has been in beta for 10 months, the longest test programme of any product from the company. Initial shipments of code began last August on Windows NT and six Unix platforms. In total, early release software has been shipped to 260 beta customers in 28 counties. A further 1,500 ISVs, partners and developer programme participants have also taken delivery of beta software.
Ellison expects it will take 18 months for the number of installed Oracle8 licences to outnumber Oracle7.3, but he predicts that new customers will prefer to go straight to Oracle8. As for the competitive face of the database market, he dismissed Sybase as irrelevent and argued that Informix is heading for another disastrous quarter, repeating his much-voiced allegations that Informix Universal Server is not a robust, integrated product.
So where does the real competition for Oracle8 come from? IBM has the market share and the techhology, said Ellison, but it?s Microsoft that poses the real threat. "Its technology is not so good, but it supports a popular platform," he explained. "It has the momentum and the threat. We spend more time thinking about Microsoft these days."
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