Enterprise application platforms are the new corporate operating systems. Picking the right platform is a fundamental decision that can make or break your organization and your career. The weight of that decision is why it is worth listening to the promises of Oracle and SAP and why it is even more important to separate promise from reality. You can change browsers, you can change search engines and you can change network providers without too much hassle or downside. The same cannot be said for changing inventory management, human resources or accounts payable systems.
"We would love to get into a technology war with SAP," the always-feisty Oracle CEO, Larry Ellison, told financial analysts in New York late last month. "Were not in a war," SAP executive board member Shai Agassi told me in a phone interview.
Much of the credit for turning SAP from a company with a strong but rigid and proprietary enterprise platform into one that is flexible, customer-friendly and in tune with current technology goes to Agassi. He contended that the medias fascination with portraying Oracle and SAP as the last two companies standing in an enterprise application war doesnt address what is really happening.
"The [computing] abstraction level is being raised one level up. ... If previously it was compute and store, now it is business objects and services," said Agassi. The raising of that abstraction level has required the likes of SAP (and now Oracle with PeopleSoft) to create a broad infrastructure of developers, ISVs and customer channels to support a vendors product set. This is not unlike the operating system market, where Microsoft, Sun and IBM created technology ecosystems to support their offerings. Most corporate customers I speak with rarely pick products but instead select technology systems that provide products, support and development communities to sustain their business goals.
Has Oracle overextended its reach in promising to build new versions of Oracle, PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards products while building a new enterprise application base platform called Fusion? Has SAP, despite its contention that it is not in a war with Oracle, touched off an interminable conflict with that company by offering services aimed at easing the passage from Oracle to SAP? Id say the answer in both cases is yes, and Ill give it a year or so to see if Im proven wrong.
In the interim, I asked a couple of corporate technology leaders (and eWEEK Corporate Partners) for their thoughts on enterprise applications and the ease of changing those applications, as well as for some advice about how customers should evaluate enterprise applications.
"Most vendors market their software better than they actually deliver," said World Wildlife Fund CIO Gregory Smith in an e-mail exchange. "At the same time, I fault an organization that takes the typical sales bait and purchases an ERP solution without doing a comprehensive requirements and competitive analysis." How easily can ERP solutions be replaced? "Not easily," Smith said. "Migrating from one to another product is not simple and requires data migration." He uses a four-level evaluation when considering prospective vendors: He looks at technical infrastructure and support, vendor attributes, and application features that fit business needs.
Carl Ashkin, CEO of Darby Group, said vendors spend too much time berating their competitors. "Most vendors have trouble seeing the value of what their competition has to offer," Ashkin said. "They are so busy yelling at each other that many times they do not hear what the customer has to say." When I asked Ashkin if he thought enterprise applications are at a stage in modularity where it is fairly easy to move between vendors, he answered, "No! That type of modularity does not exist. Most enterprise applications have a level of customization that involves a significant level of time to make the application fit into what the company expects the application to deliver."
Vendors such as Oracle and SAP need to heed the Smiths and Ashkins of enterprise IT, who want the volume turned down and the support turned up in the application space.
Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at email@example.com.