Thursday, April 23, 2009

More on Oracle-Sun

The Oracle-Sun bandwagon rolls on and there are still more questions than answers. The Guardian asks some of them: Will Oracle kill MySQL? Will it continue Sun's drive towards open source? Can Oracle cope with being a hardware company? Why is Larry still so driven?

Elsewhere Business Week asks a similar set of questions plus some sharper ones for the individuals involved: How many Sun workers will lose their jobs? Is a culture clash coming? Or, as the Guardian's Jack Schofield observes, Sun's customers may feel they have "gone from My Little Pony to Ming the Merciless".

Schofield describes the Oracle-Sun deal as "IBM's goof". Maybe Big Blue secretly agrees, because it has chosen this week to announce an intensification of its support for PostgreSQL, through its relationship with Enterprise DB. According to Matt Assay, IBM's plan to embed Postgres Plus Advanced Server technology into DB2 9.7 "basically allows applications written for the Oracle database to run on ... IBM's DB2".

In another part of the open source forest, MySQL customers try to figure out whether the deal is good or bad news. Although former MySQL CEO Marten Mickos reckons most of them hadn't noticed that Sun bought MySQL and probably won't care that Oracle now owns Sun. Anyway, IT World has rounded up the debate (including a quote from Pythian's Paul Vallee).

According to Reuters, Steve Ballmer cannot understand the thinking behind the deal: "I have no idea why a software company would buy a hardware company." Well, ignoring the obvious software assets which come with the deal, there are some major benefits to acquiring Sun's expertise in information management systems, as Andrew Orlowski points out. Unsually for commentators in general and The Register in particular, he has some nice things to say about McNealy and Schwartz's stewardship of Sunover the last few years.
"Yet by betting on some clever systems thinking during the down years, and backing their R&D departments to come up with the goods, McSchwartz ensured such disasters were survivable. The result is a lot of in house expertise in virtualisation and threading, that can make a difference with real workloads.

If Oracle isn't completely dumb, it will appreciate quite what an incredible asset it has acquired - because this know-how can help every part of its business. Peoplesoft cost Larry $10.3bn. Sun looks like a bargain."

Monday, April 20, 2009

So Oracle buys Sun

There had been rumours but it is still a surprising development. What does Oracle get for $7.9bn (a billion more than IBM was prepared to pay)?1 Surely stomping on MySQL can't be worth that much? Certainly Oracle already has enough web servers in its portfolio without taking on JBossGlassfish too. Perhaps what Larry really has bought is just the ultimate payback for all those cracks about Armani suits from Scott McNealy at OpenWorlds over the years.

More seriously, Oracle has staked a lot of its future on Applications. So having control of Java, the language of Fusion, has an obvious appeal. I imagine this news will disconcert some of the Java heads. I have known some who preferred to use Eclipse over JDeveloper, despite acknowledging that JDev is the better tool, because they wanted to remain free of proprietary frameworks. Well its all vendor specific now. Will Oracle continue with the OpenJDK initiative? There doesn't seem a lot of point spending all that money on getting Java only to proceed down the path to giving it away. On the other hand the past few years have seen much fanfare about Oracle's commitment to open standards and they will want to keep on board as much of the Java community as they can.

The notion of Oracle as a hardware vendor is an intriguing one. Oracle will be able to offer appliances such as Exadata without the trouble (and loss of potential revenue) incurred by partnering with a hardware vendor. The flip side is that hardware vendors may be less happy to accommodate Oracle on their boxes.

Which is where Linux comes in. Initially I thought that this acquisition might change Oracle's attitude to Linux. After all, as it no longer has to pay for Solaris licences, cost is no longer an issue. But Linux does have a couple of things going for it. One is that it provides a platform which will run Oracle on any vendor's hardware. The other is that the costs of maintaining it as an OS are defrayed amongst the thriving Linux kernel community. Oracle aren't going to kill off Solaris just to save costs: it has too big an install base (apparently there are more Oracle databases running on Solaris than any other OS). But I think Linux will remain Oracle's favoured platform. We might see a few Solaris utilities plundered and ported to Linux.

The staggering thing is that this is not Oracle's biggest acquisition. It paid more for PeopleSoft and BEA Systems, which is an indication of just how far Sun's stock has fallen in the last few years.

1. Or is it $7.4bn? Or even $5.6bn, a billion less than IBM was prepared to pay? Sources vary. Isn't the Internet a marvellous thing!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

J G Ballard: an appreciation

From time to time radio programmes and newspapers come round to discussing the most important post-war English language novelist. To my mind there is only one candidate. Ballard was one of that select band of writers whose world view is so singular that it has become an adjective. We can describe a motorway flyover, shopping mall or stretch of industrial wasteland as Ballardian and instinctively expect our audience to know what we mean.

Ballard was attracted to these alienating structures not because he hated people, precisely the opposite. Ballard was a very sociable man who loved life. What Ballard disliked were people who relinquished their individuality to become part of some wider, blander community, whether it be the Home Counties conservatism of the expats in the Shanghai of his childhood or the zombie-ite consumerism of New Labour's Britain. He enjoyed individuals who rejected conformity and gave free rein to their enthusiasms, even if that led them into self-destructive psychopathology. The brutal concrete of a multi-storey car park or the glittering perfection of a science park on the Cote D'Azur serve simply to emphasize the humanity of the protagonists.

As a writer he was a superb stylist. Sometimes his relish for incorporating the language of modern professional writing - physics journals, medical advertising, corporate press releases - teetered on the verge of parody. But his books were always full of striking images and precisely targeted metaphors. He also had a sly sense of humour, for which I think he was under appreciated.

Although Ballard was pegged as a science fiction writer he was never interested in the technology so much as our response to it. His stories almost never deal with the struggle to get a man on the Moon but rather the isolation of the astronaut after he has returned to Earth. He always had an ambivalent attitude to technology, being in favour of things which increase our sense of vitality - cars, aircraft - and distrustful of those which deaden sensation - word processors, fitted kitchens. His awareness of the built environment extended to the virtual environment of television and advertising. He was one of the earliest writers to analyse the modern obsession with celebrity, seeing it as a logical development of globalised media. I think he was vindicated by the narrative arc of Jade Goody; Reality TV is very Ballardian.

Now Ballard has lost his own battle against cancer. I've been reading his books for over thirty years and the news that there will be no more is hard to comprehend. The obituaries will dwell on Empire of the Sun, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. I will always have a soft spot for Vermillion Sands, a collection of short stories set in a futuristic holiday resort situated in the middle of a desert. The melancholy surrealism of the golden sands and blue skies provides a backdrop for a series of psychodramas involving the usual panoply of damaged eccentrics. Ballard applied the techniques of science fiction to produce works with a haunting poetry. It's lovely, evocative stuff. His autobiography, Miracles of Life, is a fascinating, inspirational read too.

J G Ballard 1930 - 2009. RIP.