Microsoft, Oracle vis-à-vis

A December meeting between Microsoft's Ballmar and Oracle chief Ellison sparks new rumours about Microsoft's anxiety over the threat of the Unix platform.

Microsoft Corp. is becoming increasingly concerned about the growing threat the Unix platform is posing to the company's Windows platform, and it's starting to show.

In early December, company President and CEO Steve Ballmer initiated his first face-to-face business meeting with Oracle Corp. Chairman and CEO and archrival Larry Ellison at Oracle's Redwood Shores, Calif., headquarters to discuss the issue.

While Microsoft and Oracle representatives confirmed that it was the first face-to-face business meeting between the two executives, they added only that the discussions revolved around ensuring the interoperability of their respective software offerings—particularly Microsoft's Windows NT and Oracle's database.

According to observers, however, the meeting was clearly about much more than that. Analysts and customers say that while interoperability between platforms is a big issue, Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., is also concerned about the threat of the Unix platform to Windows, particularly since many Oracle database customers prefer Unix to Windows.

"I am not surprised that Ballmer initiated a meeting with Ellison," said Steve Kleynhans, a vice president at Meta Group Inc., in Toronto. "Microsoft has to ensure that it is not cut out of this lucrative market because of the perception that its Windows platform is inferior to Unix."

Kleynhans added that Microsoft wants to "ensure that its server operating system platforms don't have any glaring holes when interacting with other systems."

Others say Ballmer has good reason to be concerned about the Unix threat, as many Oracle database customers are shying away from NT, claiming it's problematic and unreliable.

Gary Fischer, data warehouse manager at Sony Electronics Inc., in Woodcliff, N.J., said his company used Oracle only on Unix because "the Unix environment is much more powerful than anything NT can offer." Fischer said some companies might use Oracle on NT, depending on the size of the application, since Oracle on NT is less expensive. But, he said, "You will have performance issues."

Jeff Weber, senior manager for database administration at eBay Inc., in San Jose, Calif., agreed, saying that his company is strictly a Unix shop "because there are a lot of issues you have to wrangle with when you use Oracle on NT.

"The biggest issue is scalability," Weber said. "The other is reliability. We are strictly a Sun [Microsystems Inc.] shop. We find the Solaris system far more stable, and we can load up on big, powerful Sun servers with 64 CPUs and 64GB of RAM. There is nothing that can touch that on the Intel/NT platform."

The issues don't end there. Many large and influential customers, such as Lockheed Martin Corp., in Beth esda, Md., are also voicing concerns to major software vendors, including Sun, Microsoft and Oracle, about interoperability issues among various platforms.

And while neither Microsoft nor Oracle representatives would say whether the meeting between Ellison and Ballmer signaled a thawing of the relationship between the two companies or whether further meetings will be held, analysts say it is likely. The bottom line, they say: Microsoft needs to start cultivating better relationships with some of its key competitors.