Oracle: The new industry bad boy?

Talk about a few bad weeks: From dumpster diving to standards politicking, Oracle is getting it on all sides. Critics say bigger troubles loom.

In the same week that Oracle Corp. suffered through a public relations debacle about disclosures of a dumpster-dredging campaign against Microsoft, the database kingpin celebrated a more private and successful victory over its archrival.

Oracle (orcl) -- with the eager participation of Sun Microsystems Inc. -- managed to overturn one of Microsoft's most coveted database benchmark claims. At the Windows 2000 launch in February, chairman Bill Gates proudly announced Microsoft (msft) had achieved a world-record transaction processing result with Windows 2000 and SQL Server 2000, running on a dozen Compaq ProLiant servers.

But last Thursday, the Transaction Processing Council voted down the Microsoft-Compaq result, saying it violated a technical data-transparency provision. The TPC, a non-profit consortium whose membership largely comprises systems vendors, publishes transaction processing and database benchmarks -- and its decision toppled Microsoft from the top of the benchmark heap.

Yet several sources claiming familiarity with the TPC standards-body processes say Oracle and Sun have been searching out loopholes to shoot down the Compaq-Microsoft results.

Oracle officials declined comment while Sun did not return phone calls.

TPC chairman Jerrold Buggert acknowledged that the Microsoft-Compaq TPC-C benchmark result had been invalidated by the vote of the general council at a Portland, Ore., meeting last week. (The TPC-C is an industry standard test that measures transaction-processing-system throughput in terms of orders processed per minute.) But he declined comment on how the vote had come to pass, asserting that "all deliberations of the TPC are confidential."

Microsoft, however, was not quite so reticent.

"You wouldn't expect these shenanigans from a company that calls itself 'your trusted advisor for e-business,'" said Barry Goffe, group manager for Microsoft's Windows DNA platforms. "But we can't even trust them to take out the garbage."

Goffe's quip was in reference to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's admission that Oracle had hired a private detective firm to gather information about Microsoft's funding of third-party trade associations and think tanks. Oracle said that Microsoft (msft) had paid these organizations, which contend they are independent, to sway public opinion in the software giant's antitrust battle against the U.S. Department of Justice.

To be sure, some sources note that the Microsoft-Compaq configuration was not a replicable, reliable, real-world example of a clustered database system. By the same token, the TPC results for Oracle 8 and Oracle 8i a year ago were produced on cluster configurations featuring a minimum of 12 CPUs, with total hardware and software costs ranging from a minimum of $1.6 million to nearly $16 million.

Over the years, Oracle's Ellison has been one of the industry's most vocal Microsoft critics, arguing that the company is a bully peddling yesterday's software. But the old adage about what goes around, comes around is starting to apply to Ellison's own company, the Microsoft database-benchmark squabble notwithstanding.

Indeed, competitors are voicing increasing irritation at Oracle, taking issue with the style and substance of its claims. Enterprise software vendor SAP AG recently issued a rare attack-dog-style press release to refute a claim that Oracle is now the world's largest application software company. (Interestingly, Waggener Edstrom, which happens to be Microsoft's public relations firm, also represents SAP.)

And IBM Corp. (ibm) -- which competes head-to-head with Oracle in the database, tools and middleware markets -- has bristled at Oracle's claims of world dominance. While IBM officials in the past seldom publicly struck out at competitors, these days, IBM software group's top brass are taking care to distance themselves from Ellison & Co.

Relations turned increasingly sour earlier this year after Big Blue discovered that Oracle was making a full court press to woo IBM's own customers.

"When we found out that Ray Lane and Larry Ellison were going around in a jet to steal every IBM customer they could -- and they were succeeding -- that's when the gloves came off," according to a former IBM official.

That disenchantment only added to the competitive rivalry that developed in the aftermath of Oracle's push into enterprise software and electronic business, coveted markets where the company knocks heads with IBM. The ex-official said IBM was also sore because it believed Oracle "enjoyed a much higher profile than they deserve. They co-opted the whole idea of e-business that (IBM CEO Lou) Gerstner pioneered. And it's ticked people off."

Ellison's ego may be catching up with him at last, say company watchers. "The problem is that Larry Ellison is fixated on Bill Gates, while Bill Gates is fixated on the market," concluded one software developer, who requested anonymity. "Oracle may have influenced the database market, but Microsoft has changed the world."

World-changing or not, Microsoft admits it now has some work to do if it intends to reestablish itself as king of the TPC hill.

The TPC-C benchmark is an industry-standard test that measures transaction-processing-system throughput, in terms of orders processed per minute. As such, the TPC-C rating is of great interest to companies looking to purchase the most scalable systems for e-commerce and other high-transaction applications.

(ORCL) Microsoft claims its benchmark results were invalidated because the Transaction Processing Council "changed its rules, midstream." Charles Levine, group manager with Microsoft's performance engineering team, said: "There have been a number of benchmarks published in the past six years by Oracle that either don't meet (the new data-transparency requirements) or were never tested for them."

Microsoft is working with Compaq to retest the latest version of its SQL Server 2000 product. Officials say the company has since added the data-transparency feature that resulted in the Transaction Processing Council's decision to throw out the February results. SQL Server 2000 is expected to go gold in the next month or two.

"Any company can bring forth a challenge of any (TPC) results. We voted (last week) to allow for public statements about the noncompliance (of the Microsoft-Compaq results), and the fact is that those results are immediately withdrawn," said TPC chairman Buggert.

"Oracle, Compaq and Microsoft will all have things to say about this," Buggert predicted.

In the meantime, the chorus of voices with things to say about Oracle is on the rise.

Late last week, Zona Research, a market-watch organization, bluntly slammed Oracle's covert intelligence program against Microsoft, drawing parallels with the McCarthy period and Watergate.

"A great deal has been said over the last few months regarding the need to protect businesses and consumers from Microsoft," Zona wrote in a research note. "Oracle's statement regarding (the detective agency it hired) and the reprehensible acts that inspired it leave us wondering just who will protect us from companies such as Oracle."

Strong stuff. Ellison, who has been pressed into service to contain the PR fallout from "Trash-gate," now faces a more formidable challenge: convincing the industry that he's not the second coming of his old adversary, Bill Gates.

Charles Cooper of ZDNet News contributed to this report