An unfortunate side effect of being an industry analyst is that it is easy to become jaded. There is a tendency to fall back into stereotypes about technology and companies. Add to this nearly 35 years in computer technology and it would surprise no one to hear an analyst say, “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.” Some companies elicit this reaction more than others. Older tech companies with roots in the 80’s or earlier tend to get in a rut and focus on incremental change (so as not to annoy their established customer base) instead of the exciting new trends. This makes it hard to be impressed by them.
Oracle is one of those companies. It has a reputation for being behind the market (cloud anyone?) and as proprietary as can be. Oracle has also had a difficult time with developers. The controversy over Java APIs (which is really a big company spat with Google) hasn’t helped that relationship. There are still hard feelings left over from the acquisition of Sun Microsystems (a computer geek favorite) and MySQL that have left many innovative developers looking anywhere but Big Red. Oracle’s advocacy of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) has been at best indifferent. When the FOSS community comes together, one expects to see Red Hat, Google, and even Microsoft and IBM but never Oracle.
Which is why my recent conversation with Bob Quillin of Oracle came as a complete surprise. It was like a bucket of cold water on a hot day, both shocking and at the same time, refreshing.
Now, it’s important to get some context right up front. Bob came to Oracle via an acquisition, StackEngine. So, he and his team’s DNA is more FOSS than Big Red. And, like an infusion of new DNA, the StackEngine crew has succeeded in changing Oracle on some level. They have launched the Oracle Kubernetes and Registry Services which brings a Container Engine, Kubernetes, and a Docker V2 compatible registry to the Oracle Cloud Service. That’s a lot of open source for Oracle.
In addition, Bob talked about how they were helping Oracle customers to move to a Cloud Native strategy. Cloud Native almost always means embracing FOSS since so many components are FOSS. Add to the mixture a move into serverless with Fn. Fn is also an open source project (Apache 2.0 licensed) but one that originated in Oracle. That’s not to say there aren’t other Oracle open source projects (Graal for example) but they aren’t at the very edge of computing like Fn. In this part of the FOSS world, Oracle is leading, not following. Oracle even plans to have a presence at Kubecon+CloudNativeCon 2018 in Seattle this December, an open source-oriented conference run by The Linux Foundation, where they will be a Platinum Sponsor. In the past this would be almost inconceivable.
The big question is how will this affect the rest of Oracle? Will this be a side project for Oracle or will they rewrite the Oracle DNA in the same way that Microsoft has done? Can they find that balance between the legacy business, which is based on high-priced, proprietary software – the software that is paying the bills right now – and community run, open source world that is shaping the future of IT? Only time will tell but there will be a big payoff to IT if it happens. Say what you will about Oracle, they know how to do enterprise software. Security, performance, and operating at scale are Oracle’s strengths. They are a big reason their customers keep buying from them instead of an open source startup or even AWS. An infusion of that type of knowledge into the FOSS community would help to overcome many of the downsides that IT experiences when trying to implement open source software in large enterprise production environments.
Was I surprised? To say the least. I’ve never had a conversation like this with Oracle. Am I hopeful? A bit. There are forces within companies like Oracle that can crush an initiative like this. As the market continues to shift in the direction of microservices, containers, and open source in general, Oracle risks becoming too out of step with the current generation of developers. Even if FOSS doesn’t directly move the needle on Oracle revenue, it can have a profound effect on how Oracle is viewed by the developer community. If the attitude of people like Bob Quillin becomes persuasive, then younger developers may start to see Oracle as more than just their father’s software company. In my opinion, the future of Oracle may depend on that change in perception.