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Oracle bets on the Net with 8i

The company's new database focuses on the Internet both for linking business systems and as the prime driver of its revenues going forward.

NEW YORK--Oracle chief Larry Ellison, who can thank the explosion of client/server computing for much of his company's success, now says that architecture is all but dead.

In its place, said Ellison, is computing built for the Internet. The company here today announced a new Internet-centric database, Oracle 8i, and placed its long-term technology bets on the resurgence of centralized computing for business applications, at the expense of the now-prevalent distributed schemes used by most businesses.

Ellison also identified, in no uncertain terms, that Microsoft will be the company's prime competitor in the coming years, and that Oracle is moving away from its database software roots.

"Oracle is not just a database anymore," said Ellison.

Putting databases in multiple, distributed locations--a model long-favored by rivals including Microsoft and Oracle itself--is "a colossal mistake," said Ellison at a press conference.

Oracle 8i, the latest version of its core database software, includes several new technologies, including an internal file system, which Oracle calls the "Internet File System" for storing and managing Web pages as well as word processing files, spreadsheets, and multimedia data. Also new is a built-in Java virtual machine for execution of Java application code.

Ellison said the database, which also includes built-in development tools, may be all companies need to deploy business applications accessible via the Internet using a standard Web browser.

That's in stark contrast to the thick-client, code-heavy client/server applications of the past which required long development cycles and lots of maintenance.

And the announcement calls into question Oracle's own existing technology, including its Application Server software and Network Computing Architecture (NCA) scheme, introduced several years ago. NCA was supposed to make building network-centric applications easier.

Today, Ellison said that NCA, "was Oracle's clever rebranding of the Net. We confused the market," he admitted.

Ellison is clearly "distancing himself from the NCA term," said Carl Olofson, an analyst with International Data Corporation. "He's conceded that the network is the Internet."

Ellison, famous as a longtime proponent of network computing, said the move to the Internet will help companies, both large and small, build and deploy business applications more quickly, and at a lower cost. "It's what will kill client/server," he said.

What Ellison is also hoping to kill, or at least drastically damage, is the Microsoft Windows NT Server operating system. The new file system integrated into the database supports Windows application files, along with email and other file formats. Developers can build Web applications that link relational data and Windows files into a single application.

The concept is not new; in fact, it's really just a twist on existing "universal" database strategies favored by Oracle and other database makers for storing and managing many types of data using the same core database server software.

But Oracle is seeking to free itself from reliance on core Windows NT functions, such as the NT file system. Oracle IFS is "not a replacement for the operating system. It insulates you from the operating system," Ellison declared.

Not coincidentally, Microsoft, which is quickly becoming one of Oracle's chief competitors in the database market, is also pitching to developers a strategy for easily accessing its database, Windows NT file system, and assorted application files, such as word processing, spreadsheet, and email files, to make application development easier.

The scheme, detailed last week at a Microsoft-sponsored developers conference in Las Vegas, involves a new application programming interface (API) abstraction technology called Storage+.

Storage+ builds on low-level APIs, such as Microsoft's OLE DB data access interface, to simplify the task of writing applications that pull data from a variety of sources.

The major difference between the strategies of the two companies is that Microsoft's is based exclusively on Windows NT, while Oracle's plan should result in identical capabilities on all operating systems that the company supports, including Windows NT and Unix variants.

Also, Oracle now believes all data and application code belong in the database. Microsoft sees its COM+ and Storage+ schemes as helping corporate developers to unite the existing world of scattered data and multiple servers.

Olofson sees Oracle's scheme appealing to larger companies, where Microsoft's NT-based SQL Server 7.0, due later this year, should be better suited to smaller companies and departmental applications.

As previously reported, Oracle 8i also adds features to better host applications, messaging technology, a Java virtual machine, and additional Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) interfaces. It also will offer better support for parallel hardware architectures and better overall reliability, according to the company.

Oracle 8i also will feature a "WebDB," which will enable the software to run entirely within a standard Web browser. It will be the first Web development environment to do so, the executives said.

The database update further includes support for Enterprise Java Beans and offers developers a programming bridge called "SQLJ," which provides links between Java code and traditional relational data.

Currently in beta testing, the update is slated to ship by the end of the year. No pricing has been announced.

A developer's release of IFS will ship with Oracle 8i. A full production version won't debut until next year, according to the company.

Oracle's database has had something of an identity crisis in recent months: what Oracle is now calling Oracle 8i also has been called Oracle 8.1 and was code-named Emerald in the past.

News.com's Jai Singh and Kurt Oeler contributed to this report.