Oracle has a cloud computing secret

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There’s a reason Larry Ellison called cloud computing “nonsense” in 2009 and why he still won’t permit Amazon-style metered pricing for Oracle’s  mainstream database and middleware. A traditional 11g database license that today costs $2.8 million up front would cost less than $9 per hour using Oracle’s mySQL on Amazon. (Keep reading to see why this apples-to-oranges comparison is valid.)

We’ve seen a similar scenario play out before — back when IBM mainframes ran mission-critical applications on legacy databases. IBM actually pioneered relational databases, but it was conflicted about selling the lower-priced, lower-margin servers needed to run them.

These servers had the price-to-performance ratio customers needed for the performance-hungry RDBs. So a new generation of infrastructure vendors — led by DEC, HP, Sun, Microsoft and Oracle — disrupted the old IBM platform. Just like IBM, Oracle has the technical wherewithal to compete with the new databases that are powering cloud-based applications, but they’re conflicted about how to handle metered pricing in these environments.

Metered pricing disrupts old business models

We are in the midst of at least two technology disruptions. But as Clayton Christensen described in “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” disruptions are more often about addressing the needs of “un-served” and “over-served” customers than they are about revolutionary technologies. Web 2.0 apps are a perfect example of customers over-served by Oracle’s enterprise database. During the dot-com bubble, Oracle’s enterprise database ran on big Sun and EMC boxes and powered both Web and SAP-class applications. Since then, however, untold numbers of Web apps moved to the low-end and less expensive mySQL as part of a migration to the LAMP stack.

The second disruption is reaching un-served customers in social media and other new markets who are building big data applications with new levels of data volume, variety and velocity. These customers are often using the SMAQ stack or the still-emerging class of NoSQL or NewSQL databases.

Amazon enabled both of these disruptions by offering two critical features. They enabled on-demand delivery with elastic capacity, using hourly metered pricing and the ability to automate complete control of the remote hardware infrastructure, as Scalr CEO Sebastian Stadil recently explained to me.  (Scalr manages applications for thousands of customers on Amazon and other service providers.)

Traditionally, the most challenging disruptive innovations force incumbent vendors to change their business models. Oracle clearly has the technical wherewithal to build databases that meet the needs of Web 2.0 and big data applications. But changing the resources, processes and values that underpin its business model in order to support metered pricing will be immensely challenging.

A closer look at traditional and metered prices

Even if Amazon fully supported a typical Oracle configuration, Oracle’s bread-and-butter enterprise edition database in a two-node cluster with RAC and caching on Amazon’s largest EC2 databases would cost more than $900,000 in upfront licensing fees. But according to Scalr’s data, a typical application runs most of the time at only 40 percent of its peak capacity. Since Oracle requires buying licenses for peak capacity, a $900,000 cluster would be upsized to $2.3 million. With the obligatory pre-payment of 12 months’ maintenance, the initial commitment totals $2.8 million.

Compare that to a baseline cost of $5.20 per hour for the same configuration of mirrored mySQL database servers. Peak demand would top out at $12, but it would hit that only periodically, such as during a holiday shopping surge. Scalr’s data also indicates that when capacity is averaged out between peaks and a 40-percent baseline, it comes out to 60 percent of peak capacity. So with metered pricing, if we start from $12 an hour for peak capacity, that totals an average cost of $8.70 an hour, or $19,000 per quarter or $76,000 per year.

The traditional, upfront model has additional charges. According to Michael Crandell, CEO of RightScale (a company that has launched more than 3.5 million servers for customers on Amazon and other service providers), managing the full application lifecycle may require additional licenses. Server licenses for use in quality assurance, load testing, staging and standbys for failover might not be included in the production license. Add those to the $2.8 million.

How metered pricing disrupts Oracle’s business

The most important number to traditional enterprise software companies is their total revenue during the quarter they make a sale. The bigger that number, the more profitable the company looks after subtracting the heavy, and relatively fixed, upfront expenses for sales and marketing and R&D. Oracle today recognizes immediately $2.3 million after subtracting the 12-month maintenance subscription of $0.5 million from the $2.8 million total.

At the risk of greatly over-simplifying its published income statement, let’s say that Oracle would then subtract one-third, or $750,000-plus, for sales and marketing and R&D. (In reality, the sales and marketing expense for license revenue is actually higher, because follow-on maintenance services take little effort to sell, and dwarf the license revenue). The remaining $1.5 million would be Oracle’s profit margin for the quarterly reporting period when they made the sale. Now subtract that same $750,000 in expenses from the $19,000 in quarterly revenue under metered pricing. That comes to a loss of $730,000 for the quarter in which the sale is made.

In fairness, these metered revenue streams would add up on top of each other. But the point is that the transition to metered pricing would dramatically erode Oracle’s revenue and 45 percent of its operating profit margins. That is why Oracle is resisting metered pricing.

The bottom line

Contrary to Oracle’s claims, neither its Exadata database machine nor its database appliance is a cloud strategy. Both strategies base their pricing on peak capacity, not on elastic metering. Furthermore, discrete hardware is the opposite of cloud infrastructure, which enables near-infinite capacity on demand. Like IBM during the client-server transition, Oracle has the technology to address customer demand. It is just conflicted about the business implications of cloud computing’s metered pricing.

George Gilbert is a co-founder at TechAlpha Partners, a consultancy that works with vendors serving the enterprise market, startups and institutional investors on issues of business strategy and product management and marketing. Previously, Gilbert was the lead enterprise software analyst for Credit Suisse First Boston, a leading investment bank in the technology sector.

Image courtesy of Flickr user stevendepolo.

For more on how big data is impacting the tech industry, be sure to check out GigaOM’s Structure:Data Conference in New York City on March 21 and 22.

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