Sunday 27 April 2008

Cloud Computing and Web 2.0

Don’t you just hate it when another woolly ambiguous term is forced upon us? When I was approached by yet another journalist the other day asking me my thoughts on the impact of cloud computing, I simply sighed and told them it is a bit like Web 2.0. In itself, it is difficult to pin down exactly what is meant by it. The best you can do is say that both of these terms refer to a general direction in which the industry appears to be moving.

In the case of Web 2.0, it is about the Web becoming a generally more interactive medium. This can manifest itself at a technology level through everything from Ajax through mash-ups to SOA, and at a behavioural level through social media and the simple fact that websites are generally now more geared up to a two-way dialogue than they used to be.

In the case of cloud computing, it is about the evolution of dynamic virtualised infrastructure that allows us to think more in terms of resource pools than individual IT components. This in turn opens the door to delivering computing resource on a utility basis, which is equally applicable both internally (i.e. with regard to the way you use your data centre) and externally – which takes you into the realm of utility computing and software as a service.

The point about both Web 2.0 and cloud computing is that they both sprung up arbitrarily on the evolutionary timeline, and seeming embraced anything and everything that could be thrown into the mix. While the very specific phenomenon of social networking is certainly noteworthy, this bears little relationship to evolution of rich user interfaces and composite applications, in fact many social networking sites have appalling UIs by traditional standards. Yet Web 2.0 can mean either of these things, and, confusingly, lots of other concepts too.

Similarly, we have been talking about virtualisation ultimately leading to computing grids and utility computing for years, and giving it a new name doesn’t actually change anything in terms of the underlying trend. In fact, you knew where you stood much better when you could talk about virtualisation and grid technology as the enabling stuff, and utility computing and application services as what it enables. As everyone jumps onto the cloud computing bandwagon, it all gets mixed up and confused, just like Web 2.0.

So, if you are one of those people wondering what cloud computing is really all about after listening the IBM explanation, the Microsoft one, and the evangelical rhetoric we have heard recently from the Google and camp, don’t worry, you are not alone. The trick is to think of it as a label for a trend at one level, and an industry bandwagon at another, and keep your expectations pretty low in terms of clarity and consistency for the time being. Don’t however, dismiss the underlying trend it itself. While we are not looking at a revolution here, some of the developments in this general area are really quite interesting and valuable – though, you probably knew that already, even before the marketing hype was thrust upon us.

Monday 14 April 2008

Oracle and Collaboration

I was interested to read about Angela’s experience trying to secure a briefing from Oracle on its collaboration related offerings and activities. As Angela pointed out, the ‘Big O’ was the only large vendor that ‘should’ have a story in this space that declined to tell her what it was up to.

When I later commented on this (with a link to the above) via Twitter, someone else came back to me to say that they too had been having trouble getting Oracle to open up in this area.

I have to say that this doesn’t surprise me. It must be quite challenging for Oracle at the moment trying to figure out how to position in this space. The Oracle Collaboration Suite was launched a few years ago supposedly to save the world from flaky Microsoft Exchange installations and pretty much fell flat. Oracle believed its own rhetoric about the world hating Microsoft, so looked silly to most people when it aggressively launched an initiative that would only work if customers ditched their existing Microsoft messaging infrastructure, which was never going to happen.

In addition to some of the things Angela mentioned, we have also seen the portal wars in which Oracle has consistently been on the back foot, and lately, the march of Microsoft SharePoint and a range of collaboration and unified communications offerings from IBM under the Lotus and WebSphere brands that are largely messaging system agnostic.

Then most recently, we have seen the BEA collaboration offerings thrown into the mix, which before the acquisition, were beginning to look pretty good. BEA had a very sound grasp of the heterogeneous world in which customers live and was taking a very mature view of social media in the enterprise, for example. And, of course, it wasn’t encumbered by competitive obsession, which, as an aside, is arguably one of the biggest obstacles to Oracle being accepted as a truly strategic partner in many major accounts. Telling CIOs and business executives that they have been stupid over the years to waste their money on SAP, Microsoft and IBM, for example, is not the best way to win friends in high places. While competition is good, destructive messaging generally only appeals to junior level activists. It is a huge turn-off in senior management circles.

Coming back to the original question, we should probably continue to expect Oracle to be tight-lipped on not just collaboration, but middleware strategy in general for a little while yet. I have personally been told on a couple of occasions to refer to the ‘official line on' when looking for clarity on open questions that we hear from Oracle’s customers (old or newly acquired). Irritating though this might be, and frustrating though it is to be fobbed off with ‘Mom and Apple Pie’ type feel-good policy statements, the truth is that there is little else Oracle can do until it gets its act together properly.

And to be fair, given some of the confusion than came about as a result of articulating nice sounding stories around work-in-progress plans associated its CRM and ERP acquisitions in the past (that later had to be ‘adjusted’), it is probably better for us to hang on until Oracle really has worked out what it is trying to do in collaboration as it has in the enterprise application space.

Oracle is undoubtedly already aware that needs to be careful that the collaboration and closely related unified communications markets do not slip away from it, and will be doing what it can to make sure it doesn't get left behind again. In the meantime, it goes without saying that customers should challenge the company hard before making major commitments to it in these areas.