When I find myself making the same observation fairly frequently, that’s a good impetus to write a post based on it. And so this post is based on the thought that there are many analogies between:
- Oracle and the Oracle DBMS.
- IBM and the IBM mainframe.
And when you look at things that way, Oracle seems to be swimming against the tide.
Drilling down, there are basically three things that can seriously threaten Oracle’s market position:
- Growth in apps of the sort for which Oracle’s RDBMS is not well-suited. Much of “Big Data” fits that description.
- Outright, widespread replacement of Oracle’s application suites. This is the least of Oracle’s concerns at the moment, but could of course be a disaster in the long term.
- Transition to “the cloud”. This trend amplifies the other two.
Oracle’s decline, if any, will be slow — but I think it has begun.
There’s a clear market lead in the core product category. IBM was dominant in mainframe computing. While not as dominant, Oracle is definitely a strong leader in high-end OTLP/mixed-use (OnLine Transaction Processing) RDBMS.
That market lead is even greater than it looks, because some of the strongest competitors deserve asterisks. Many of IBM’s mainframe competitors were “national champions” — Fujitsu and Hitachi in Japan, Bull in France and so on. Those were probably stronger competitors to IBM than the classic BUNCH companies (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell).
Similarly, Oracle’s strongest direct competitors are IBM DB2 and Microsoft SQL Server, each of which is sold primarily to customers loyal to the respective vendors’ full stacks. SAP is now trying to play a similar game.
The core product is stable, secure, richly featured, and generally very mature. Duh.
The core product is complicated to administer — which provides great job security for administrators. IBM had JCL (Job Control Language). Oracle has a whole lot of manual work overseeing indexes. In each case, there are many further examples of the point. Edit: A Twitter discussion suggests the specific issue with indexes has been long fixed.
Niche products can actually be more reliable than the big, super-complicated leader. Tandem Nonstop computers were super-reliable. Simple, “embeddable” RDBMS — e.g. Progress or SQL Anywhere — in many cases just work. Still, if you want one system to run most of your workload 24×7, it’s natural to choose the category leader.
The category leader has a great “whole product” story. Here I’m using “whole product” in the sense popularized by Geoffrey Moore, to encompass ancillary products, professional services, training, and so on, from the vendor and third parties alike. There was a time when most serious packaged apps ran exclusively on IBM mainframes. Oracle doesn’t have quite the same dominance, but there are plenty of packaged apps for which it is the natural choice of engine.
Notwithstanding all the foregoing, there’s strong vulnerability to alternative product categories. IBM mainframes eventually were surpassed by UNIX boxes, which had grown up from the minicomputer and even workstation categories. Similarly, the Oracle DBMS has trouble against analytic RDBMS specialists, NoSQL, text search engines and more.
IBM’s fate, and Oracle’s
Given that background, what does it teach us about possible futures for Oracle? The golden age of the IBM mainframe lasted 25 or 30 years — 1965-1990 is a good way to think about it, although there’s a little wiggle room at both ends of the interval. Since then it’s been a fairly stagnant cash-cow business, in which a large minority or perhaps even small majority of IBM’s customers have remained intensely loyal, while others have aligned with other vendors.
Oracle’s DBMS business seems pretty stagnant now too. There’s no new on-premises challenger to Oracle now as strong as UNIX boxes were to IBM mainframes 20-25 years ago, but as noted above, traditional competitors are stronger in Oracle’s case than they were in IBM’s. Further, the transition to the cloud is a huge deal, currently in its early stages, and there’s no particular reason to think Oracle will hold any more share there than IBM did in the transition to UNIX.
Within its loyal customer base, IBM has been successful at selling a broad variety of new products (typically software) and services, often via acquired firms. Oracle, of course, has also extended its product lines immensely from RDBMS, to encompass “engineered systems” hardware, app server, apps, business intelligence and more. On the whole, this aspect of Oracle’s strategy is working well.
That said, in most respects Oracle is weaker at account control than peak IBM.
- Oracle’s core competitors, IBM and Microsoft, are stronger than IBM’s were.
- DB2 and SQL Server are much closer to Oracle compatibility than most mainframes were to IBM. (Amdahl is an obvious exception.) This is especially true as of the past 10-15 years, when it has become increasingly clear that reliance on stored procedures is a questionable programming practice. Edit: But please see the discussion below challenging this claim.
- Oracle (the company) is widely hated, in a way that IBM generally wasn’t.
- Oracle doesn’t dominate a data center the way hardware monopolist IBM did in a hardware-first era.
Above all, Oracle doesn’t have the “Trust us; we’ll make sure your IT works” story that IBM did. Appliances, aka “engineered systems”, are a step in that direction, but those are only — or at least mainly — to run Oracle software, which generally isn’t everything a customer has.
But think of the apps!
Oracle does have one area in which it has more account control power than IBM ever did — applications. If you run Oracle apps, you probably should be running the Oracle RDBMS and perhaps an Exadata rack as well. And perhaps you’ll use Oracle BI too, at least in use cases where you don’t prefer something that emphasizes a more modern UI.
As a practical matter, most enterprise app rip-and-replace happens in a few scenarios:
- Merger/acquisition. An enterprise that winds up with different apps for the same functions may consolidate and throw the loser out. I’m sure Oracle loses a few customers this way to SAP every year, and vice-versa.
- Drastic obsolescence. This can take a few forms, mainly:
- Been there, done that.
- Enterprise outgrows the capabilities of the current app suite. Oracle’s not going to lose much business that way.
- Major platform shift. Going forward, that means SaaS/”cloud” (Software as a Service).
And so the main “opportunity” for Oracle to lose application market share is in the transition to the cloud.
Putting this all together …
A typical large-enterprise Oracle customer has 1000s of apps running on Oracle. The majority would be easy to port to some other system, but the exceptions to that rule are numerous enough to matter — a lot. Thus, Oracle has a secure place at that customer until such time as its applications are mainly swept away and replaced with something new.
But what about new apps? In many cases, they’ll arise in areas where Oracle’s position isn’t strong.
- New third-party apps are likely to come from SaaS vendors. Oracle can reasonably claim to be a major SaaS vendor itself, and salesforce.com has a complex relationship with the Oracle RDBMS. But on the whole, SaaS vendors aren’t enthusiastic Oracle adopters.
- New internet-oriented apps are likely to focus on customer/prospect interactions (here I’m drawing the (trans)action/interaction distinction) or even more purely machine-generated data (“Internet of Things”). The Oracle RDBMS has few advantages in those realms.
- Further, new apps — especially those that focus on data external to the company — will in many cases be designed for the cloud. This is not a realm of traditional Oracle strength.
And that is why I think the answer to this post’s title question is probably “Yes”.
A significant fraction of my posts, in this blog and Software Memories alike, are probably at least somewhat relevant to this sweeping discussion. Particularly germane is my 2012 overview of Oracle’s evolution. Other posts to call out are my recent piece on transitioning to the cloud, and my series on enterprise application history.