Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison is trying to spark a new round of database wars. He told thousands of faithful users at the Oracle Open World conference in San Francisco earlier this month that he would stake $1m that any organisation installing his company's next-generation 9i software would get three times the Web site performance they had running IBM's DB2 or Microsoft's SQL servers.
"A tenfold increase in performance is easy," said Ellison. "A threefold increase in service we can guarantee."
His rivals at IBM and Microsoft pointed to the small print of the challenge, which they dismissed as a cheap publicity stunt.
A Microsoft spokesman said, "Ellison's claim is based on Web pages per second, which is less to do with database performance than Web site caching."
Jeff Jones, senior program manager for IBM Data Management, said, "It is a typical Oracle 'rip-and-replace' tactic, something that is not only expensive but also technologically risky."
A central theme of Ellison's speech and Oracle's business strategy for the coming year is the drive towards standardisation. The company has slimmed down a 75-product price list to just two: the Oracle Application Server and the Oracle Database. Many of the software products and tools that were sold separately have now been subsumed into the new offerings.
"We want all our customers to run identical software configurations," said Ellison, who went on to suggest that Oracle partners, such as Compaq, Sun and Hewlett Packard, should pre-install pre-configured software.
Standardisation of products and configuration together with new 9i technology would allow Oracle to offer unprecedented performance and reliability, said Ellison.
In a rare compliment to Bill Gates, the Oracle chief said, "Are we trying to do to the enterprise software business what Microsoft did in office suites? You bet."
Ellison said Oracle had been a great believer in open standards, but added, "The market wants integrated software from one vendor. I can't help it if that is what the market wants."
Ellison later contrasted Oracle's drive to standardisation with the performance of IBM, criticising its promise to integrate any combination of software an enterprise might choose.
For Mike Blake, IBM Data Management's technical sales manager, "Oracle's approach has more to do with megalomania and restricting customer choice than any great insight into technology.
"Standardisation is about exactly that, standards. We support and develop our products to open standards and we partner with industry leaders who take the same approach."
Microsoft was also critical of Ellison's approach. "No one company can ever provide all things to all people, which is why Microsoft's partner model has been so successful," the company spokesman said.
Oracle, IBM and Microsoft have all claimed their products are the market leaders. Oracle said it is now powering more than 50 business-to-business exchanges. Microsoft boasted of a massive SQL server base, and IBM said leading application developers including Siebel, SAP, i2, Ariba, Vignette, Retek and PeopleSoft have chosen DB2 as their standard software development platform.
Microsoft claimed its SQL Server 2000 running on Windows 2000 achieved nearly double the performance of Oracle/Unix at half the total system cost in benchmarking tests by the industry standard Transaction Processing Performance Council.
IBM said its DB2 recently took top marks TPPC database benchmarks for online transaction processing and complex ad hoc query processing.
Ellison, meanwhile, said the TPPC tests did not provide a reliable guide to real day-to-day business performance and, if Oracle's powerful position in the marketplace is anything to go by, most users are happy with its performance.
Any user plotting their database and server strategy will hear many warning voices in the coming months, but getting the balance between performance and cost will not be easy.
Analysts' organisation Meta Group summed up the dilemma when it said, "Oracle's new 9i database adds important incremental functionality but does not provide the great technological leap that would put it far ahead of its lower-priced competition.
"Oracle's 'database everywhere' strategy, which attempts to generalise a single infrastructure pattern to fit all needs, is often a high priced answer to problems that are better solved with other infrastructure approaches."
Carl Olofson, program director at research company IDC, has a different take on the situation. "Oracle has created a sophisticated architecture. The ability of Oracle's customers to redistribute IT resources dynamically, depending on their day-to-day or even hour-to-hour demands, will ultimately get the greatest value out of their computing investment," he said.
With analysts, like databases and enterprise software, you pay your money and you take your choice.