San Francisco’s famous fog lifted just enough Sunday night to reveal a change in the landscape – a new computer appliance from Oracle called the Exalogic Elastic Cloud.  Oracle CEO Larry Ellison took the opening keynote slot that Charles Philips was scheduled to fill before his rapid exit less than two weeks ago.  Instead of giving us a CEO level overview of the transforming changes that Oracle has gone through since the last OpenWorld, Ellison did what he feels most comfortable doing – talking about the technical details of a cool new product.

Exalogic Elastic Cloud certainly sounded exciting when Ellison used his story telling style to explain how it came about.  Basically it is an appliance that combines servers, storage, a new version of Linux (or a new release of Solaris) and lots of middleware.  Ellison claimed that it offers more than 10 times the throughput of IBM’s top end 795 servers at less than a quarter of the price – certainly cool if true.  He gave the impression that it works alongside the Exadata database appliance introduced a few years ago.  Exactly how the two work together was not clear.

It was not obvious when he started what Ellison was leading up to.  He started with a tutorial about his view of cloud computing comparing the way Salesforce.com offers its applications through the network with an approach pioneered by Amazon called Elastic Compute Cloud or EC2.  The bottom line was that the Amazon model was more flexible and capable.  Ellison then claimed that Oracle had built something similar into a hardware/software appliance.  By comparing it to the Amazon offering Oracle feels justified in including the trendy but ill-defined term “cloud” in the name.

I have always thought of “cloud” as referring to computing done largely on a network of computers that others own and control.  The new Oracle appliances don’t really follow that model.  Presumably, Oracle would claim that the new machine brings the advantages of the external cloud to the data center.  I take the more cynical view that Oracle is trying to associate a new product with a trendy concept by hijacking an ill defined term and reshaping its to its own agenda.  Oracle is hardly the only vendor that uses the oxymoron “private cloud”.  HP, IBM and its other competitors do the same thing so why not.

All-in-all the opening keynote seemed a little surreal to me.  Over 40,000 people had gathered to learn more about Oracle.  After a boring introduction and some partner awards the stage was given to HP (Oracle’s new enemy).  Obviously HP had paid a great deal back when the partnership was strong to get this slot.  HP made no mention of the behind the scenes soap opera and instead gave a dull summary of its product line.  I am sure a few people in attendance thought it was mildly interesting but the people I spoke to were bored to tears.

When Ellison mercifully took over the stage, he was energetic and articulate as usual.  Sadly, he said essentially nothing about the company in general or major trends in the market.  He jumped right into the lead up to his hardware announcement.  Fifty seven minutes into his scheduled hour Ellison remembered that he had some slides on something else and made brief mention of Fusion Applications.  We were told that the big news on Fusion would come in his next keynote near the end of the conference.

The only explanation I can offer for why Oracle is doing so poorly this year in communicating what it is up to is the departure of Charles Phillips who traditionally did more than anyone else to tie things together.  In his absence OpenWorld is drifting around without a rudder so far.