Oracle Attempts At Another Reinvention

The technology industry is unkind to companies on the wrong side of middle age. But some veterans that once looked well past their primes have found fountains of youth. One of the best examples is Oracle Corp., the 40-year-old database software company founded by 73-year-old Larry Ellison. The company for decades was assured a big slice of corporations’ $2 trillion annual spending on technology. Many of the world’s biggest companies found Oracle’s products essential for tasks such as keeping tabs on inventory, balancing the books and analyzing retail sales trends. But when Ellison stepped down as chief executive three years ago, Oracle looked as if it was in crisis.

Crisis looks different at Oracle than it does, say, at MySpace. Companies that sell technology to businesses don’t tend to die quickly as internet companies do. Instead, they slowly wither and fade into irrelevancy. Business customers that rely on technology from Oracle, Microsoft or IBM can’t ditch it immediately. Instead, they might start dabbling with newer technologies for high-priority growth projects and resign the dinosaur technologies to less important parts of their budgets. Over years, those budgets might shrink or disappear. Oracle looked for a while as if it might be stuck in that camp.

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And then a technology revival Ellison had been talking up for years seemed to take hold. He had been boasting about refashioning Oracle’s technology for the epoch of cloud computing, in which companies shift from pricey, hard-to-update software bought on long-term contracts to pay-on-demand technology that is refreshed frequently because information is stored and processed on remote computers, just like internet services such as Facebook.

Oracle’s cloud revolution seemed like Ellison bluster, but it turned out to be real. In Oracle’s quarter ended in August, revenue rose 6.9 percent from a year earlier, the company’s best growth rate since 2011, according to Bloomberg data. What Oracle defines as sales of cloud technology accounted for 16 percent of Oracle’s total revenue, up from 5.5 percent when Ellison gave up the CEO post but remained chief technology officer. The Oracle founder, who once mocked cloud computing as “complete gibberish,” now can’t stop talking about it. Oracle’s growing sales of cloud computing don’t guarantee the company relevance for the next 40 years. As it and other companies transition from selling upfront software contracts to pay-as-you-go cloud technology, revenue can nose-dive for a while, and the shift pinches profits. Some people in the technology industry are skeptical about whether what is sold as cloud software is truly being used by the customers.

Companies also have more technology options than ever, including free or low-cost alternatives, and it seems unlikely a handful of titanic empires such as Oracle can retain an iron grip on corporate technology spending. It will also be tough for Oracle to retain its market share in the $31 billion database market. When a company has a commanding position, there may not be anywhere to go but down. There’s also a poor track record of pioneers in one period of technology maintaining their dominance after seismic industry shifts. Just try to remember the last time you saw a Nokia mobile phone.

But it is possible for technology titans to find new life. Adobe took the remarkable step of changing its business model overnight from selling software such as Photoshop to essentially renting its most important products as Netflix-like subscriptions. It was painful, but Adobe and its stock price have thrived since the 2012 reboot. Like Oracle, Microsoft has found cloud-computing religion, although investors’ enthusiasm for that company’s cloud shift is ahead of reality.

The same is true at Oracle. Investors now believe the cloud transition has taken hold, but they could lose confidence if Oracle has a rocky quarter or two. Oracle did get a big vote on confidence in May when AT&T Inc. — one of the world’s biggest spenders on technology equipment and software — said it would move a significant portion of its databases to Oracle’s cloud. Oracle has said it thinks selling cloud software gives it a shot at landing many more customers, and at higher profit margins, than it ever could in the days when it sold only big-ticket software contracts to giant corporations. Oracle, Microsoft and Adobe are giving hope to all technology companies with more than a few wrinkles. Those software pioneers are showing that there’s a place in the tech industry for middle-aged reinvention.

  • Bloomberg

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Microsoft and Google Trying to Catch Amazon in the Cloud

It’s hard to think of a business Amazon.com Inc. dominates as convincingly as the market for cloud computing services. Andy Jassy, chief executive officer of the company’s cloud division, Amazon Web Services Inc., likes to brag that his outfit has several times as much business as the next 14 providers combined. Amazon’s next-largest cloud competitor, Microsoft Corp., is less than one-fifth Amazon’s size in terms of sales of infrastructure services, which store and run data and applications in the cloud, according to research firm Gartner Inc. Google, the No. 3 U.S. cloud services provider and the second-largest company in the world by market value, makes one-fifteenth of Amazon’s cloud revenue.

“AWS effectively defined the notion of cloud computing,” says Gartner analyst Ed Anderson. “It’s perceived as the cloud leader and pacesetter.” AWS generated $4.6 billion in sales in the most recent quarter. Every year, it introduces dozens of features and products to retain its edge.

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But Amazon isn’t invincible, and the qualities that made the division so successful—the platform’s self-service nature and its deployment of software and services that Amazon had used for its enormous retail operation—can also be seen as vulnerabilities, at least as far as Microsoft and Google are concerned. Microsoft’s cloud unit, Azure, has managed to win over customers, including Bank of America Corp. and Chevron Corp. in recent weeks, by focusing on the sorts of salesmanship and relationship-building skills not always prized at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. “There’s not one default choice,” says Kurt DelBene, Microsoft’s executive vice president for corporate strategy and planning. “We’re not going to get to a place where any one vendor is that default choice.”

“Microsoft is at the leading edge of today’s game-changing cloud-based technologies,” CEO Satya Nadella wrote in his autobiography, published in late September. “But just a few years ago that outcome seemed very doubtful.” As part of Nadella’s catch-up strategy, Microsoft has transformed its sales force into a roving R&D lab and management consultancy. Startups get introductions to potential investors and prospective partners and customers. Big companies get access to a sales team that helps market the cloud apps they build on Azure to their own customers so they can make a buck on the software they use in-house.

The sales team includes 3,000 dedicated software engineers who can build applications for prospective clients during sales calls, demonstrating on the spot what they can do for them. “I can’t send people to a customer anymore to give a PowerPoint presentation,” says Judson Althoff, executive vice president for Microsoft’s worldwide commercial business. Once a customer signs on, Microsoft engineers can be deployed to the client the next day.

Bill Braun, Chevron’s chief information officer, says Microsoft impressed him by showing off machine learning software that will allow his company to analyze volumes of data from oil production equipment to detect tiny changes in temperature or vibration, early signs of faulty equipment, or other problems. “They understand the enterprise,” he says.

Microsoft’s sales team made the pitch with the help of HoloLens, the company’s new augmented-reality headset. When paired with Microsoft’s cloud software, the headset allows Chevron’s senior engineers to virtually oversee the work of software technicians around the globe as they install equipment.

For years, Microsoft representatives have sold the company’s signature Windows and Office software that clients install on their computer networks. More recently, they’ve moved some of those clients to Office apps in the cloud. Clients accustomed to those cloud applications may be more likely to go with Microsoft when they decide to replace their own data centers and servers with public cloud infrastructure, says Gartner’s Anderson.

An existing relationship was why candymaker Mars Inc. chose Microsoft instead of AWS last year. “Our philosophy is to drive deeper relationships with partners we already have,” says Paul L’Estrange, Mars’s chief technology officer. “We didn’t have that same sort of relationship with AWS.” Google is trying to set itself apart with TensorFlow, software that makes it easier to build artificial intelligence apps, and with Kubernetes, a software system which helps companies better manage their data in the cloud.

Even Google, a company that has been generally allergic to using people for anything a machine can do, has seen the value of having a human sales force. In late 2015 it hired corporate software veteran Diane Greene, a Google board member and co-founder of VMware Inc., Dell Computer’s cloud computing subsidiary, to run its cloud business. She’s been building a cloud sales force from scratch. Google recently announced a partnership with Salesforce.com Inc. to take advantage of the latter’s list of preferred cloud providers.

Both Google and Microsoft have sought to exploit another of Amazon’s perceived weaknesses: that other parts of its empire compete bitterly with prospective cloud customers. Amazon’s retail rivals, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Bangalore-based Flipkart Ltd., don’t want to see their Amazon cloud payments lining the coffers of the retailer that could ultimately put them out of business, says Gartner’s Anderson. Flipkart signed up with Microsoft in February. According to a June report in the Wall Street Journal, Wal-Mart has been telling its tech suppliers not to use AWS. Wal-Mart didn’t respond to a request for comment. CEO Jassy says AWS treats all its cloud customers, including many Amazon retail rivals, equally.

After several years on AWS, Lush Ltd., the U.K.-based toiletries company, jumped to Google Cloud in November 2016. Lush has sued Amazon, claiming the company is using Lush’s trademarks to sell rival bath goods.

“We’re not particularly keen on Amazon as a company, so we’d prefer not to work with them,” says Jack Constantine, Lush’s chief digital officer. Amazon declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“It’s not a surprise to us that every large tech company in the world is interested in building a replica of what AWS has done,” says Jassy. Whether or not it’s feeling the pressure, the company is spending more time cultivating relationships with top executives and CIOs. It’s hosting dinners with prospective clients to address their concerns in more intimate settings and bringing more of a human touch to these relationships. “They’re making themselves accessible,” saysAdam Johnson, CEO of IOpipe, which provides monitoring and troubleshooting services to businesses running on AWS.

Its reputation as the market leader means those executives and chief technologists tend to lean toward AWS when all else is equal. Its early lead—AWS beat Microsoft to the market by four years—gives the company an automatic edge. And Amazon’s cloud services are seen as the safe bet, no small thing in an age of hacks and denial-of-service attacks. Sometimes even when a company thinks it can claim a win over AWS, it can’t broadcast the victory. In March, Google published a blog post announcing that Airbnb Inc., a longtime AWS client, had agreed to use a Google cloud service for AI. The following day, Airbnb’s name was scrubbed from the post. Airbnb and Google declined to comment.

So for the near future, at least, AWS looks like it will continue to rule a market that Gartner expects to generate $89 billion in sales by 2021, up from $35 billion today. “There’s a humongous amount of growth in front of us,” Jassy says. “This is the biggest technology shift of our lifetimes.”

  • Bloomberg

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How to get beyond Finance vs IT

One thing that you’re likely to encounter in any IT department is resentment toward the Finance department. A staffer might be angry because “those bean counters in Finance who know nothing about technology” directed him to buy one product when he wanted to buy a different one. Or maybe Finance approves the acquisition of an application, but it says to get the server version, not the cloud version (or vice versa; Finance’s decisions can seem maddeningly unpredictable). Or it outright rejects a request to replace a system that users consider to be a boat anchor. “Why?” asks IT. Because, says Finance, that boat anchor can’t be replaced until it’s fully depreciated — never mind that that will be several years in the future.

Without a grounding in your organization’s capital structure and financial practices, such decisions can make Finance appear arbitrary — a description that would amaze most people in Finance, who think of themselves as methodical, pretty much the opposite of arbitrary. In most cases, Finance has practical reasons for its decisions, but to IT leaders, they can seem to defy logic because they are completely unrelated to IT concerns

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