The biggest questions for Oracle OpenWorld

Oracle’s OpenWorld conference, which kicks off Sunday in San Francisco, could be the biggest one yet for the company, which entered the hardware game last year through the purchase of Sun Microsystems and is closing in on US$40 billion in revenue.

But the bigger the company, the more questions it has to answer about its future directions and past promises. The tens of thousands expected at OpenWorld and its sister JavaOne conference will be in search of all the details.

An Oracle spokeswoman declined to comment on the company’s planned announcements for OpenWorld, but through interviews with industry experts, reasonable speculation and some digging, here’s a look at some of the most important questions facing Oracle going into the show.

The final word on Fusion Applications?

It’s no longer fair for anyone to say Oracle’s long-awaited Fusion Applications aren’t real, but they aren’t yet generally available in the traditional sense. Oracle recently put the next-generation suite into “controlled availability,” where customers must undergo a type of readiness assessment before Oracle lets them buy anything.

For the past couple of years, Oracle has pulled back dramatically on the Fusion Applications hype as development on the next-generation suite chugged to a conclusion. Fusion is supposed to combine the best attributes of Oracle’s other ERP (enterprise resource planning) lines, such as E-Business Suite and PeopleSoft, along with pervasive BI (business intelligence) functionality.

“It’s important for them to say ‘we’re open for business with Fusion’ and show some customer adoption” at OpenWorld this year, said Forrester Research analyst Paul Hamerman.

Oracle Senior Vice President Steve Miranda is expected to do something along those lines during a keynote address and customer panel discussion on Wednesday.

There are other gaps for Oracle to fill in the Fusion Applications story, namely just how the reported SaaS (software-as-a-service) option will work and be priced. So far, pricing has only been released for the on-premises versions.

Oracle also could make clearer what current E-Business Suite, JD Edwards and PeopleSoft customers are entitled to under their maintenance payments in terms of an upgrade to similar Fusion modules.

Customers shouldn’t expect too many scary surprises, according to Frank Scavo, managing partner of the IT consulting firm Strativa.

“Oracle’s got to make this attractive from an economic perspective, otherwise there’s going to be tremendous inertia,” he said.

But Oracle should also give existing customers a sense of what’s in store if they don’t immediately upgrade to Fusion, Scavo added. “Clearly, Fusion is the future. What kind of investment can [the installed base] expect for their maintenance dollars going forward? Are they going to see the best features of cloud computing, mobile technology and social [software]?”

All eyes on Exadata and Exalogic?

Observers expect Oracle to announce a number of new engineered systems that combine software and hardware, much like its initial forays in this area, the Exadata database machine and Exalogic application server.

“We expect Oracle to discuss customer adoption of its Exadata solutions, which continues to be impressive,” Forrester Research analyst James Kobielus said via email.

Oracle has also indicated that Exalogic has been doing well, but specifics on that front have been fairly slim compared to Exadata. More specific adoption rates or details on high-profile Exalogic deals could come at OpenWorld.

As for those new machines, Oracle couldn’t wait for OpenWorld to announce one of them. Last week, it rolled out the Oracle Database Appliance, sort of a miniature version of Exadata aimed at SMBs. On Monday, it unveiled an Exadata-like “supercluster” machine based on its SPARC chips.

At the show, it’s possible that Oracle will announce new appliances that target specific software products, including Fusion Applications.

Any evidence the ‘soup-to-nuts’ stack play is working?

Exadata and Exalogic are part of Oracle’s ongoing attempt to position itself as a one-stop shop for IT buyers, with the ability to sell customers everything from storage to business applications in tightly engineered packages.

This strategy has an obvious downside to overcome, namely the specter of total lock-in to a single vendor.

Therefore, it will be interesting to see whether Oracle can show off a high-profile customer or two at OpenWorld who has bought into the super-stack vision in a big way, not just as an Exadata or Exalogic user.

As it turns out, one of those customers may end up being Oracle itself.

Oracle Chief Corporate Architect Edward Screven and systems chief John Fowler are scheduled to deliver a keynote on Wednesday that will “present the latest on Oracle’s engineered systems and talks about how Oracle runs its business on Oracle hardware and software–and the success it is achieving by doing so.”

Hullabaloo about Hadoop?

The Hadoop open-source framework for large-scale data processing is getting major interest from many vendors in the database and data warehousing arena. So far, Oracle hasn’t made a huge investment. But it could lay out broader plans for Hadoop at OpenWorld.

“Oracle has been conspicuous for its absence from the Hadoop market,” Kobielus said.

At least one possibly new Hadoop-related product will be discussed. “Oracle’s loader for Hadoop lets you use the power of Hadoop to process data and load the results into Oracle Database for analytics,” reads a description for a demo to be held at OpenWorld.

In addition, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said earlier this year that the company would launch a “big data accelerator” involving Hadoop at OpenWorld.

Oracle’s in-memory computing play

Rival SAP has been rebuilding its long-term software strategy around HANA, an in-memory database that is the brainchild of co-founder Hasso Plattner and technology chief Vishal Sikka.

Ellison, whose flagship Oracle database currently powers many an SAP installation, has been somewhat dismissive of HANA’s potential and said Oracle has been in the in-memory game for a long time, in an apparent reference to Oracle’s TimesTen software, an in-memory database cache acquired in 2005.

OpenWorld is supposed to feature the debut of an “in-memory accelerator” for Exadata, according to remarks Ellison made earlier this year. But it’s not clear whether this will constitute an entirely new product or something based on TimesTen.

Movement on mobility?

Hamerman is also looking for Oracle to flesh out its strategy for mobile applications. “They’ve been a little bit behind on mobile,” he said. That’s in contrast to SAP, which through the purchase of Sybase has made mobile development a central pillar of its strategy moving forward.

The OpenWorld schedule includes a number of mobile-oriented sessions, with application development and customer case studies among the topics, but it’s not clear that Oracle has a high-level statement of direction on mobility planned for any of its keynotes. However, the likely place for such a thing will be during Monday’s talk by Thomas Kurian, executive vice president of product development.

Larry talks cloud computing: Seriously this time?

Much attention at OpenWorld traditionally gravitates toward Ellison’s main keynote address, which is held on Wednesday and usually contains its biggest news announcements.

But Ellison is also scheduled to appear Sunday evening during a welcoming ceremony for attendees.

Ellison will “provide an overview of this week’s major product announcements,” according to a statement on Oracle’s website. “Learn about new engineered systems from Oracle that offer extreme performance, convenience, and cost savings. Hear the latest news about Oracle Fusion Applications, the new standard for business. And see how Oracle products are redefining cloud computing for the enterprise.”

All of which begs the question, what’s Larry got in store for Wednesday?

Believe it or not, Ellison’s talk is supposed to focus solely on cloud computing, the marketing of which he has famously mocked in the past for being excessive “gibberish” improperly applied to old technologies.

Now OpenWorld attendees are set to get the definitive word on cloud computing, which is described by Oracle’s site as “the #1 IT priority today,” straight from Ellison himself.

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