OpenWorld was kicked off Sunday with the customary CEO presentation. Larry Ellison, however, is not in the habit of doing anything in a customary way. For the fourth year in a row the CEO chose to focus on only one facet Oracle’s complex business –hardware/software appliances, now called “engineered systems”. Oracle’s software offerings were only mentioned in passing as examples of things that run well on Oracle hardware. Late in the presentation, an attendee behind me in the audience asked his associate if Oracle was still in the business of selling database software – something not apparent from anything the CEO said.

Database was not the only notable thing ignored. No reference was made to Fusion Applications at all. This could be an indication that progress continues to be slow on this front but it is dangerous to try to read too much into what Ellison chooses to talk about.

When Ellison first walked on stage, did a double take and commented “we have a lot of hardware up here!” He then spent an hour filling our heads with technical details, specs, and comparisons versus his hardware nemesis IBM. As usual, it was articulate, passionate and sounded very convincing. I am not enough of an expert on hardware to judge this facet of Oracle’s business, but Ellison sure can make it sound impressive. At the same time, IBM keeps sending me email messages bragging about how it is gaining market share in hardware from Oracle. Where the truth lies remains a mystery to me, but it is no mystery what Oracle management currently cares the most about. Winning the hardware battle and proving that acquiring Sun was a good idea is clearly the top priority.

As someone concerned about applications more than the hardware they run on, I found Ellison’s presentation very disappointing. A tiny bit of love sent in the direction of the application community would have been nice. I also find it strange that Ellison now pays so little attention to the parts of his business that make most of the revenue and profit.

With Ellison’s considerable help, computer hardware is moving faster toward becoming a low-cost, low-margin commodity. Competition from quality vendors has become increasingly fierce. Oracle, IBM, HP, Dell, EMC, Teradata and many others are racing to see how quickly hardware can be created that performs nearly perfectly and costs almost nothing. The movement toward cloud computing threatens to further speed up the pace of that race.

The hardware war is great for those worried about applications. Each year we can afford to be a little less concerned about hardware cost relative to creating the solutions that run on it. The arcane details of hardware design are generally only of concern to those job entails selecting and running it. I have to believe that 90% of the attendees at OpenWorld have little to do with hardware selection and that all the energy being spent here hyping Oracle appliances (sorry, engineered systems) is lost on the rest of us.

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