Oracle 8i users shrug off Net features

Four months after the shipment of the Internet-centric 8i, Oracle customers who have received 8i as part of regular software upgrades don't seem to care about the new Internet features--at least not yet.

Mike Ricciuti Staff writer, CNET News
Mike Ricciuti joined CNET in 1996. He is now CNET News' Boston-based executive editor and east coast bureau chief, serving as department editor for business technology and software covered by CNET News, Reviews, and Download.com. E-mail Mike.
Mike Ricciuti
5 min read
Oracle's ready for the Internet, but are its customers?

Last fall, Larry Ellison, chief executive of database giant Oracle, announced with his trademark bluster that his company was putting all of its development and sales efforts behind Oracle 8i, which he described as the only technology businesses need to deploy applications that are accessible through the Net.

But four months after the shipment of the Internet-centric 8i, Oracle customers who have received 8i as part of regular software upgrades don't seem to care about the new Internet features--at least not yet.

Not only does 8i serve as a full-function database server, it also includes a built-in Java Virtual Machine to run Java application code; a built-in application server that runs the rules and regulations of software; WebDB, a browser-based software development tool; Intermedia, a technology that allows users to search for data in all formats, such as Word documents, audio, and video; and a new file system, called the Internet File System (IFS), which stores and manages Web pages, as well as word processing files, spreadsheets, and multimedia within the database.

However, most Oracle customers contacted said they're deploying the new database not because of any Net technology but for some rather old-fashioned reasons: speed and increased performance. While they like the new Web features in concept and are testing them, they say the technology is still too new and unproven to use in production systems.

Even the dot com companies so prominently featured in Oracle advertisements aren't willing to take the plunge just yet.

"Our focus is not on the Internet features. Those are very new. The reason we're using 8i out of the box is we get a lot of performance enhancements. It's definitely speed," said Sanjeev Mohan, a data architect at consulting firm Scient, which is using Oracle 8i for its project with online real estate brokerage firm HomeBid.com.

Delana Sandy, manager of production data services at Lycos, said the portal will switch from Oracle 8 to 8i in the next two to three months because of its new, faster data warehousing features, not because of Internet-centric technology.

Sandy said Lycos wants 8i for its much-improved speed. Lycos's search engine currently uses flat files or straight binary files to maintain links to 60 million to 70 million Web sites, but will move to Oracle 8i to house the data because it's now fast enough.

"There's no way for us to go live with the search features on Oracle 8. Oracle 8i is so much faster," she said.

About those new Internet features? Sandy said she'll evaluate new XML support. IFS "sounds good, but I'm not sure how we'll use it here. We're still kind of in wait and see mode...with that," she said.

It's not that the database server isn't popular. In fact, a recent survey of 1,500 Oracle customers conducted by the company's user group found very high interest in the database. More than 60 percent of companies surveyed said they planned to make the switch to 8i. And those few early adopters who have developed applications using 8i's new Internet features, rave about the new Internet technology.

Jeff Grant, IT manager for record company Nettwerk Productions, is one of those early adopters.

While his company's Web site still runs on Oracle 8, Grant so far has built two applications that run on 8i: accounting software that collects royalty reports for its recording artists and an application that sends out email to 40,000 to 60,000 fan club members directly from the database.

His next project is to build an intranet, so employees can write and send email on the Web, sort of an internal Hotmail, he said.

Grant has used the built-in Java Virtual Machine in 8i and hasn't had any problems. The move back to centralized computing for business applications make sense, he said.

"Ellison really keyed in on it a year ago. Developing apps like this makes all the sense in the world," Grant said. "If you have to make a modification, there's no more screwing around and going to 5,000 people [to upgrade the software]. You can make the changes in one spot."

Early adopters notwithstanding, one reason for the lukewarm reception toward 8i's Internet-centric technology could be that some key pieces--long promised by Oracle--are still not available in a finished form. Additional support for Extensible Markup Language (XML) in the Internet File System are still to come. Oracle had originally promised the IFS technology this summer, but it's not slated to debut until year's end, said the company.

Oracle executives say it's natural for current customers to slowly adopt the new features because 8i is only four months old. It takes time to learn the new technology, said Jeremy Burton, Oracle's vice president of server marketing.

"The features they like are scalability and reliability. But over time, they'll figure out what this Internet model can do for them," he said. "In six to nine months, we'll see more applications developed using the newer Internet features."

Analyst Merv Adrian of Giga Information Group, said it makes sense that most users are using 8i for its performance and speed first, rather than the Internet features.

Oracle was a market leader in building Web features into its database, a smart move because it gives customers an impetus to move the new version, he said.

"The real impact of databases consists of the ability to deliver reliable applications that perform well. But you can't sell a database by saying it works better. It has to have new improved XML support with JavaBeans," Adrian said. "8i represented a dramatic shift in focus, to Internet-driven changes. People are buying it because it meets today's and tomorrow's needs."

Tomorrow's needs may be exactly what most Oracle customers have in mind when they evaluate 8i. Cloene Goldsborough-Davis, vice president of information technology at Sprint PCS, said her company--which stores roughly 90 percent of its data in Oracle databases--is not inclined to make a quick judgement of 8i's new features. "We'll look at it and try to plan where it might fit. But we don't see a need right now. It's not at the top of our list."

Mohan, of Scient, said his company chose 8i for the HomeBid.com project because it's the latest product and HomeBid can exploit all the new Internet features in the future.

But Scient won't use any of the Internet features until it's sure the technology works, Mohan said. Scient is still testing the current crop of Internet features available on 8i, including the built-in Java Virtual Machine.

In the meantime, Mohan said the company will focus on using the performance features of 8i, such as the Parallel Server, which offers load balancing, which gives the ability to distribute transactions evenly so it won't overload the system.

As for the Internet features of 8i, Mohan said the database server is "only four months old and we haven't tested it enough. At this stage, it's version 1. You should never use version 1 of any software," he said. "We don't want our clients to be the first ones tested."