The Borg approach to competition

Microsoft's monopoly will soon end—or at least Oracle's Larry Ellison thinks so. According to Ellison, the Internet will break Microsoft's dominance by making things such as PCs, OSs, and file systems obsolete. Does Ellison think Microsoft will ignore such a challenge?

Case 1: The NC
Several years ago, Ellison predicted that network computers (NCs), which run Java applications, would make Windows unnecessary. What he didn't take into account is that NCs have two serious flaws. First, they have a huge cost of entry because all their software must be written in Java. Second, like PCs, NCs require large amounts of RAM and high CPU speed, and people need to replace them every 2 to 3 years. In addition, with the rapid decrease in PC prices, NCs now cost more than typical business PCs cost.

At first, Microsoft publicly denounced the NC, claiming the PC was the answer now and in the future. However, the computing industry's focus on total cost of ownership (TCO) caused Microsoft to change that direction and embrace Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition and Windows-based terminals. This turnabout illustrates something I've learned about Microsoft: What Microsoft trashes today, it embraces and extends tomorrow.

Case 2: Server Appliance sans OS
In November 1998, Ellison announced that, to run its Oracle database, Oracle would promote a server appliance without an OS. This announcement was one more opportunity for Ellison to assert that the world doesn't need NT to run a server. The question that Ellison hasn't answered is which non-OS will Oracle embed in these server appliances—Linux, UNIX, or some proprietary system?

The key to such a server appliance's success is the ability to provide seamless scalability and manageability as system requirements increase. Suppose you start with a server appliance that includes replication, a cluster interconnect, some type of server OS, and the Oracle Parallel database. Once one server appliance can no longer handle your requirements, you simply add another server appliance. The first server appliance would recognize the second server appliance and automatically start partitioning the database across server appliances, taking advantage of the built-in cluster and replication capability. The management console would treat the two nodes of the cluster as one system.

This type of server already exists on NT. Network Engines has produced an embedded NT-based Web server appliance that can handle up to 256 nodes in one cluster. Although this server appliance doesn't handle an Oracle or SQL Server database, it lets you expand an Internet Information Server (IIS)-based Web server easily. If Oracle Parallel Server could handle seamless partitioning and load balancing, I'm sure Network Engines could come up with a device like the one Ellison described. However, if Ellison has any hope of eliminating the need for NT Server, he has to come up with generic load-balancing software for his embedded OS. Oh, and one more thing: Whatever OS Oracle chooses to embed will need as many off-the-shelf applications available as NT Server has today. Or perhaps all these applications will soon be rewritten for Java.

Case 3: Database-based vs. File-based
Oracle recently introduced the Internet File System (iFS) as an alternative to OS-based file systems such as NTFS. Oracle asserts that a database is a much better place to store objects than a file system. This idea makes a lot of sense. For example, when you visit Windows NT Magazine's Web site, 90 percent of the data you see is stored in a database. When you request a page, the middleware product Cold Fusion queries a SQL Server database and creates HTML pages that you see on the fly. The other 10 percent of the site consists of static HTML templates that point to objects in NT's file system. Why not store everything in SQL Server? That approach would let you manage everything on your site from a database.

As usual, Microsoft responds to the iFS initiative by saying that file systems are necessary. But if history is any predictor, Microsoft will provide the same type of functionality in the next version of SQL Server. In fact, Microsoft may simply embrace and extend Oracle's idea by replacing NT's file system with an embedded SQL Server database. That way, Microsoft can eliminate the need for the file system and Oracle at the same time.

If You Can't Beat 'Em...
You might think I've been harsh on Oracle. Actually, I think the company has a lot of innovative ideas that are worthy of consideration. However, Microsoft apparently will eventually embrace and extend any product Ellison can dream up. As long as Microsoft retains this flexibility, its position is secure.