It’s been an interesting, but exhausting week. I have been at Oracle Open World in San Francisco, SAP TechHead in Phoenix and for further contrast last week, I was at Cordys Cordial Cloudburst in the Netherlands. As a result, I have seen the way that two major players, in the past, positioned as direct competitors in the ERP space, have been talking to their existing customers and – in the case of Cordys – how a start-up founded by another famous name in ERP (Jan Baan) is talking to prospective customers.
They might have all started from a similar point and might all have big installed customer-bases, but beyond this the direction of each is completely different. As you listen to the arguments there is logic and truth in each point of view that leaves you thinking that they could all be combined – but I reckon that’s a systems integration project too far! The order in which I am going to comment on each has no particular significance except that it seems to be the most obvious way to ‘tell the tale’ – so please, no posts saying I’m favouring one over another, as that’s not my intention! The idea here is to draw some comparisons among each approach, at a moment when a new technology wave is so clearly approaching the shore.

Oracle has presented a clear picture that a full stack – the so called ‘red stack’ with strong linkages between the elements right up from the infrastructure at the bottom to the user presentations or more experiences at the top is a critical success factor. In fact they demonstrated this by the degree to which they have started, and plan to go on, making the Oracle user empowered with ‘real time’ insight into their application from across the aligned and optimised technology stack. Though they were also keen to make it clear that this is an ‘open’ stack into which non-Oracle technology can be introduced, as Fusion is revised and extended in 2010, this will be handled and integrated into the entire Oracle stack from this point.
Oracle is also using its comprehensive vertical stack to increase the number of pre-integrations around process between its products and capabilities. Some of which are highly industry sector specific, whereas others are non-specific improvements aiming for ‘straight out of the box’ delivery. Clearly a positive and welcome proposition for any CIO, but actually that’s how Oracle expects to be able to get its optimised stack to work by predetermining the integrations to ensure optimisation in the use of data and information. It’s this ability to optimise performance and deliver a new set of highly interactive experiences (related to rapidly changing events to business managers by powerful manipulation of data into executable processes) that is the focus of the Oracle sales message about delivering the benefit of the vertical stack.
By contrast, SAP is focusing on what they see as three critical success factors: insight – for improved performance; efficiency – for optimised operations; and flexibility – to create new business value. The SAP objective is to be able to create and extend your own best practices, and to see the impact on your business. Effective use of process is one of SAP’s greatest strengths. It’s not quite as simple as Oracle = data, and SAP = process, though. The trade off is that Oracle provides process but through pre-integrated ‘Process Improvement Packs’ to derive the benefit of extreme performance from data optimisation.
The SAP approach is to focus on the ability to make process optimisation a tailored capability to suit your own organisation’s ‘best practice’ and not to provide this as pre-built integration. The SAP approach uses the company’s own tools and capabilities, plus its practitioners’ vast experience, to do this, striking a balance between industry sector best practice and unique enterprise leverage, all with database independence. SAP claims that this approach will allow modular change in the elements without losing the coherence of the overall process. If you can continually flex and change in this manner without having to deal with the lumpy process of irregular big upgrades then that’s the benefit and is defined by SAP marketing as ‘Timeless Software’. Personally I would liken it to the ‘everlasting’ broom in the garden shed that has had five new heads and two new handles! Of course this approach also allows any combination of other technologies – either already in-place, or newly introduced – to be present.
And finally there is the vision of Jan Baan the founder of Baan ERP, (who left before Baan hit the hard times and eventually failed), then went on to do WebEx – now part of Cisco, Top Tier – now part of SAP. Jan brings all of this experience to Cordys, his latest company, which he describes as the next stage in addressing needs that are beyond the capabilities of ERP. Based on his impressive CV, we should probably assume that Jan knows what he is doing and what he is doing is very different. Personally I like the summary of his Cordys approach as ‘state full objects and stateless connections’.
Jan thinks that you can’t get results by extending the current technology. Instead, what’s required is a complete decoupling between the state full data and procedural world arising from enterprise applications and a new world of loose coupled services. His argument is that you need to do this to allow the introduction of new technologies deployed in new ways that suit users and the way that they want work, but that you can do this combined with state full applications and data. What is interesting about this it that it lines up with the thinking of an increasing number of resources being virtualised and the direction that VMware is arguing in favour of. Forget the resources and concentrate on the threads that connect the user to process elements.
So what do I make of all this? The three approaches all have legitimate claims to delivering real tangible benefit to users wanting better support from IT in their daily work. The decision factor is around the critical benefit that a particular user community needs. That could be almost real time data manipulation embedded into the presentation from Oracle, or optimising, customising and changing process across the enterprise from SAP, or the bold move of Cordys in supporting the development of wholly new externalised operations using the internet and web 2.0. All in all, its good news as it introduces new choices and value into our IT industry and somewhat defeats the arguments of Nicolas Carr that ‘IT doesn’t matter’ as it is a common and undifferentiated capability!