Larry Ellison's Linux Plans

Courtesy of InformationWeek Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is determined to shape Linux's future, and he's not waiting for someone to ask his opinion. In a sign of the central role of Linux in Oracle's future, Ellison said this week that Oracle will strip the Red Hat trademarks and symbols out of Red Hat Linux and market that version as the best Linux on which to run the Oracle database. And it will back it with low-cost support. There was wide speculation that Oracle might issue its own Linux distribution. Rumors swirled among the 42,000 attendees of Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco that it would designate the easy-to-use Ubuntu version as its preferred Linux, bundled with the Oracle database. Ubuntu fans will have to wait. Instead, Oracle zeroed in on the Linux that dominates business servers (Red Hat commanded 61 percent of the paid Linux market last year) and promised that Oracle's version of Red Hat's product would be better than Red Hat's. Oracle will offer customers its own bug fixes to the Linux kernel as it has them, rather than incorporating the fixes into the next release of the kernel. And Oracle is claiming that its 24-by-7 worldwide technical support will cost less than half the price of Red Hat's. Did the world take Ellison seriously? Red Hat's stock plunged 24 percent the next day. "At the price they're going to support it, I would say, yes, we'll consider it," says Ampie Kruger, manager of business systems for Mweb, a South African Web hosting service, who attended Oracle OpenWorld. Mweb runs the Oracle database on six four-way servers running Red Hat Linux and gets its technical support from Red Hat. Faster Fixes, Ellison Says Ellison cited faster bug fixes as the rationale for moving to Oracle's Linux. The wait for bug fixes "is the most serious problem confronting the Linux community today. It's slowing the adoption of Linux," he said in his keynote speech. But the open source community doesn't see Ellison as a white knight. "The downside is lock-in if Oracle manages to eliminate Red Hat as a viable competitor -- which I have no doubt is their long-term intention," says Venona, in a post to the open source blog Slashdot. "I would hate to see Red Hat being subsumed by Oracle." It's conceivable. Oracle could make a bid for Red Hat, especially if its stock price stays at this week's level. Red Hat's market cap was about $3 billion at the end of this week; Oracle paid $10.3 billion for PeopleSoft and $5.8 billion for Siebel. Oracle had its eye on JBoss, the popular open source Java application server and middleware company, until Red Hat acquired it. "If they get the Red Hat stock price down, if Red Hat is seen as floundering, they might acquire the team or the company," says David Woodard, a consultant at House of Brick Technologies, which installs Linux for retailers and banks. Most of his customers run Oracle under Red Hat Linux, and he'll recommend they consider Oracle's offering. Getting database and Linux support from the same company appeals to Kamran Rassouli, a database analyst at Activant Solutions, which makes software for lumber stores, hardware stores, and auto parts retailers. His firm runs Linux and Solaris, with the Oracle databases under Solaris. The upside: "You don't have to prove whether it's a database or operating system problem," Rassouli says. Oracle has Linux talent. It contributed to the Linux community a cluster file system that was accepted by lead developer Linus Torvalds and became part of the kernel. It employs as VP of Linux engineering Wim Coekaerts, one of the first developers to illustrate the possibility of running applications on Linux clusters. "We will give you the same support for Linux as for the database," Ellison said. But bug fixes from Oracle prompted talk of something the Linux community dreads: a fork. If Oracle distributes bug fixes on its own schedule, rather than waiting to add it to the kernel, that creates a fork, where an application running under Oracle Linux wouldn't be guaranteed to run under the next release of Red Hat Linux. If Red Hat came up with a different fix for the bug or declined to incorporate the fix because of risks to other parts of the operating system, customers would have to choose between the two. That's different from today's choice between Novell Suse Linux and Red Hat, which use the same kernel. And it raises the specter of the kind of fragmentation that occurred among Unix vendors in the late 1980s and ultimately hindered the adoption of Unix. 'Unfakeable Linux,' Red Hat Promises Red Hat is trying to fire back with its own bravado, sporting a huge banner on its Web site (in Oracle red, no less) reading "Unfakeable Linux" to tweak Oracle's "Unbreakable " Linux marketing campaign. In its online Q&A, Red Hat said Oracle's plans to make changes to the Linux code would invalidate Red Hat's hardware and software compatibility certifications and that it couldn't guarantee compatibility with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It also noted that Oracle isn't supporting other Red Hat products, such as its Application Stack, Cluster Suite, and Directory Server. Billy Marshall, CEO of rPath, which sells Red Hat Linux configured for particular application bundles, predicted Oracle's move will strain Red Hat, but not for long, just as Novell's entry into the enterprise Linux market had only a short-term effect on Red Hat's fortunes. Marshall, who was VP of North American sales during Red Hat's 2001-2005 growth spurt, doesn't buy Ellison's assertion that slow bug fixes are slowing Linux adoption. "Oracle has determined to use Linux as a competitive weapon to reach their own goals -- to own as much of the software market as possible," he says. Whether open source wins or loses is secondary, he says. Beyond Linux, Oracle also still might covet JBoss for its broad base of application server and Java middleware customers. Oracle has cited in earnings reports its fast-growing applications revenue as proof that the company isn't dependent for growth on the mature database market. But it has acknowledged that for its applications to win wide acceptance, it must become a strong player in middleware, currently dominated by IBM WebSphere, BEA WebLogic, and Sun Microsystems Enterprise Java System. More Than Linux On Display Ellison stole the show with his Linux plans, but the company also had some bread-and-butter announcements about the database, applications, and middleware that were the reason tens of thousands of people came to San Francisco. Oracle previewed the release of its E-Business Suite 12 applications, though they're at least a year from availability. E-Business Suite 12 will let companies do profitability analysis and reporting on their products, channels, market segments, and individual customers. The suite will also include tools for evaluating the cost and revenue effect of supply chain decisions and a feature for evaluating global projects. Enterprise search, XML-based reporting, and role-based analytics are improvements common to many of the upgrades under development. "Search is becoming one of the new metaphors for how people navigate to their work," said John Wookey, senior VP of applications. Wookey says the first applications under Fusion -- the application suite that will combine Oracle's apps with the PeopleSoft and Siebel apps it has acquired -- are still scheduled to be available next year, and that the complete suite will be available in 2008. Oracle also blasted out a list of planned improvements in its upcoming Oracle 11g database, including online application upgrades, snapshot standby, and flashback archiving. Oracle also added a user interface component called WebCenter Suite to its Fusion middleware, which is meant to become the default user environment for its Fusion applications. With the present generation, it can be invoked to perform search, business intelligence, reporting, and other tasks across Oracle apps and a variety of structured and unstructured content sources, such as Web portals, e-mail, and databases. None of that news could outshine Ellison's Linux plans, though. The stock market at first glance didn't like Red Hat's chances against Oracle. Now it's customers' turn to respond. --With reporting from Rick Whiting and Barb Darrow

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