Can Oracle break Exchange's grip?

Despite Larry Ellison's best efforts to convert Exchange users to "unbreakable" Oracle9iAS, Steven Vaughan-Nichols is not impressed.

"You must be kidding," I thought when I saw Larry Ellison proclaiming how much better his 'unbreakable' Oracle9iAS would be than Exchange Server 2000. Please, stop pulling my leg.

I'm no fan of Exchange Server. But within its limitations, it's fine for a small company or departmental mail server. As long as you keep it below 500 users or so per server and you don't ask people to use it for dial-up mail--in both cases expect to see performance drop through the floor--it's fine.

Let's start from the top. The headline on Oracle's page currently reads, "Oracle makes Microsoft Exchange Unbreakable." No, it doesn't. It replaces Exchange with an Oracle9iAS database that supplies basic IMAP/POP/SMTP functionality, which you can use with Outlook or any other e-mail client.

In Ellison's Comdex speech, he went on about how he loves Outlook, despite all it flaws, and how Exchange is the real problem. Give me a break! Outlook is the weakest link in Microsoft's mail system, and everyone knows it. Since I last wrote suggesting that dumping Outlook is the smart thing to do, there have been three more serious worm attacks which have all exploited Outlook.

What does it take for companies to realize that Outlook is a lousy client? Having a bunch of teenagers mess up the Net? After all, that's who created Goner. The mail server doesn't matter to Outlook Transmitted Diseases (OTD)s, whether it's involved with Oracle9iAS or Exchange.

Oracle also claims that its mail services are a complete replacement for Exchange/Outlook. However, these mail services don't support Microsoft's Mail Application Programming Interface (MAPI), and that means you can kiss your Outlook scheduling functionality good-bye.

This new Oracle mail system also uses the Oracle Internet Directory instead of Active Directory (AD) so there goes more functionality out the window. Not to mention that if you had the fits I did getting AD to work, you've also lost a lot of man hours.

Let's look at Ellison's idea that multiple mail servers are a bad idea because they add extra cost and can run into delays as e-mail is sent hither and yon. Okay, he's got a point there. But for performance, it's less of one than you might think. I send e-mail to Australia all the time with Sendmail and qmail servers moving the mail most of the way. It usually takes a good 20 seconds on a bad day to send mail from here to Perth. Exchange isn't a whole lot slower.

Of course, running and managing multiple copies of Exchange is more expensive. Server and client access license (CAL) prices aside, you need a lot of Exchange administrators. But is that so bad compared to the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket approach that Oracle suggests? I don't think so. They can call their system unbreakable, but it's still a single point of failure.

Although Oracle claims that a centralized system is better than a geographically dispersed one, I don't buy that. What happens if the wide area network (WAN) or Internet links go down in the centralized scenario? With the centralized approach, no access to the central server means there's no e-mail. With the distributed approach, your people in Japan can keep sending e-mail even if they can't get it to the San Jose office. Even presuming the Oracle central server is more available because it's "unbreakable," if your remote office can't get to it, does that really matter? I'll take a distributed approach every time myself.

Steven has written about technology for more than 15 years. He was previously a programmer and network administrator for NASA and the Department of Defense. Steven is also currently chairman of the Internet Press Guild.