Oracle, IBM Spar over Sensors

By Jacqueline Emigh  |  Posted 2004-11-18

Oracle, IBM Spar over Sensors

Not to be outdone by IBMs colorful new $250 million sensor arm, Oracle is somewhat discreetly at work on a new Sensor-Based Services initiative.

Like IBMs effort, Oracle Corp.s program rolls together RFID with other sorts of sensors. Hewlett-Packard Co., Sun Microsystems Inc., SAP AG and other big vendors are also collaborating with users and partners on non-RFID sensors, designed to measure temperature, read utility meters and perform a variety of other tasks with little or no human help.

Oracle actually launched Sensor-Based Services at the end of March, about six months before IBMs September unveiling of Sensor & Actuator (S&A) Solutions, a major IBM division expected to ultimately employ 1,000 people.

What is Oracles Sensor-Based Services? Its a program office at Oracle that coordinates the sensor-related activities of thousands of Oracle workers. Allyson Fryhoff, vice president of Oracle Sensor-Based Services, and her smallish team of staffers interface to a steering committee and working groups that delve into everything from sensor-oriented product architecture to deployment and marketing.

"What were doing is cross-functional and global. When RFID and other sensors are in place, therell be a lot more data to deal with, so you need to think now about what youll be doing with it," Fryhoff said in an interview with

Although Oracles effort isnt as highly funded as IBMs, it does seem imminently achievable, in the opinion of some analysts.

"Oracles strategy isnt some huge $250 million dollar deal. But its fairly straightforward, and it should be relatively easy to do," said Jeff Woods, an analyst at GartnerGroup.

Not surprisingly, IBM isnt all that impressed with archrival Oracles approach to sensors. John Charlson, an IBM spokesperson, pointed to differences between IBM and Oracle in the areas of "investment, business partnerships, end-to-end solutions and open standards-based software."

Read more here about IBMs $250 million investment in RFID technology.

"IBM will take advantage of existing customer and partner relationships with chip manufacturers, device makers and ISVs. Unlike Oracle, IBM does not compete with application vendor partners," Charlson said.

Meanwhile, almost everyone agrees that, although potentially promising, the sensor market is still emerging. Temperature sensors arent always that accurate, Wood said. GPS (Global Positioning System)—a sensor technology that uses satellite beams to gauge location—is an interesting technology, but one that hasnt really "taken off" yet, according to the Gartner analyst.

Other analysts cite big differences between RFID—a wireless package, pallet and item-tracking system driven by industry mandates from retailers and the U.S. Department of Defense—and markets for other types of sensors. These other markets are tending to grow more slowly, through vendor solutions built to the highly specific application needs of individual customers.

"RFID is really the first iteration of the intelligent network," according to Erik Michaelson, an analyst at ABI Research.

But vendor rivalries now bubbling up in RFID will someday spill over into the overall sensor market, he said. "Theres definitely competition brewing, and each vendor will play to its own traditional strong suits," Michaelson told

Aside from Oracle and IBM. other big vendors currently dabbling in non-RFID sensors havent announced formal, overreaching "sensor" programs,

But HP, Sun, SAP and other vendors all say theyre working with customers and/or partners on sensors beyond the RFID variety.

HP, for example, is collaborating on temperature sensor applications with pharmaceutical and biotechnical customers, said Dayna Fried, an HP RFID spokesperson.

Click here to learn about making RFID work for the pharmaceutical industry.

Sun has built a sensor-based ship control system with the U.S. Navy, as well as a building temperature control system with Johnson Controls, said Vijay Sirathay, group marketing manager for RFID at Sun.

SAP is focusing mostly on RFID right now, but its also been certifying a wide range of outside sensor maker partners for SAP compliance, according to Bill Wohl, an SAP representative.

Next Page: Tiny sensors, big possibilities.

Big Possibilities

What do huge vendors see in these tiny sensors? Virtually all of them plan to hang RFID and other sensor technology around their own products and/or consulting services. Oracle is pitching both its software and services underpinnings.

"From a competitive standpoint, Oracle is pretty unique on the data-management side. In addition to capturing the data, customers need to make sure they have all the pieces for optimizing it," according to Oracles Fryhoff.

On its Sensor Services Web site, Oracle touts products that include the Oracle Database; Application Server; Enterprise Manager; E-Business Suite; Collaboration Suite; Data Hub; and development tools. The Oracle Application Server 10g includes a Sensor Edge Server, she said.

"Were also leveraging our partner network," Fryhoff said. Partners listed on the site include Intel; RFID systems maker Intermec; RFID tag manufacturer Alien Technology; Tata Consulting Services; and several RFID and bar-code label printing specialists.

IBMs overarching S&A umbrella, on the other hand, encompasses hardware—including its own mobile "pervasive computing devices"—together with software and services.

According to Michaelson, IBM has identified the following opportunity areas in sensor networks, for itself and other vendors: enterprise and business applications; BPI (business process integration); "premise-based solutions" specific to customer locations; "edge of network servers," which tend to handle sensor management and communications; antennae and reader hardware; and PLCs (programmable logic chips).

Like IBM, HP and Sun are selling their own hardware and software, as well as services. Like Oracle, ERP (enterprise resource planning) vendor SAP is sticking with software and services. The companies vary in terms of how they partner as well as how long theyve been working with RFID and other sensors.

Is supply chain player i2 Technologies springing back against ERP giants? Click here to find out.

But if the budding battle over the sensor market ever evolves into a widespread war, it might not be limited to large vendors only.

"Just because youre a multibillion-dollar company, that doesnt necessarily mean youre better at RFID. OatSystems, Connectera and TagsWare, for example, all have systems with highly sophisticated capabilities that bigger vendors generally lack," Gartners Woods said. Bidirectional sensing is among OatSystems claims to fame.

ABIs Michaelson said he foresees opportunities for smaller sensor technology specialists to outcorner the big guys with peer-to-peer networks specifically geared to sensor-based applications.

But the larger systems vendors arent about to take any new competition lying down, either. "If [the sensor technology specialists] try to do that, we will be ready," Suns Sirathay said.

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