The flurry of media excitement that has convinced even Her Majesty's government that the Internet and intranets can offer huge business opportunities will also help to line the pockets of corporate resellers and distributors.
That, at least, is what Rob Bruce, enterprise product manager at Oracle UK, believes. 'It's clearly the case that with excursions into this technology there are tremendous benefits to be reaped. The key to getting the best bang for your buck is to leverage existing systems and Web enable applications you already have,' he says.
Rather than just preach a doctrine of integration, Oracle has, he says, implemented its own system in-house, and this could well be a model for other corporate players in the UK market. The need for this kind of system is illustrated by one of those odd statistics computer companies are fond of rolling out: Oracle says 70 per cent of the 1995 class of Fortune 500 companies are out of business. That's a clear example for companies in the top 500 in 1996, it thinks.
Oracle's message to both its channel partners and to large corporate organisations is that the progress of technology means processor power doubles every 18 months, and that DVD technology will soon mean that we will be able to store 20 years-worth of The Times newspaper on one disk. The Web, it claims, will provide the first universal and low-cost way of sharing information and applications and allows anyone to communicate with anyone else.
The factors driving the increasing acceptance of intranets include a reduction of costs, better productivity and the improvement of communications, while the challenge for large corporations - and therefore for corporate resellers - is to develop transactional applications, manage Web ser-ver content and use existing investment in the client/server model. Needless to say, Oracle is sure that its own tools and other software will help companies do just that and ensure its own growth.
As one of the Fortune 500 players, Oracle, at least, is up to speed, claims Bruce. 'Oracle Repository is a big data warehouse with presentations and white papers. It was only accessible before by a forms front-end.
When it was Web-enabled it became available to those Oracle end-users that have a browser. You used to need a special piece of software - a client program - and now all you need is a browser to access that information.
This makes the richness of information in existing systems available to more people, more usefully,' he says.
Although many of the tools depend on Java applications, Bruce does not think that any skills shortage there might be of programmers up to speed with the language will be a problem. 'Oracle has a huge amount of Java skills and we're putting it into servers and tools we manufacture,' he claims. That means much of the burden of recruiting new Java programmers, or re-training other staff, will not be necessary. 'We have people here who understand C and Assembler, so Oracle customers don't have to. The whole purpose of using our tools is that we've already done the work.'
Intranets, he says, have more to offer than just a way of communicating across an enterprise. 'One thing they do is to break the barriers between functional departments without re-inventing the wheel.' An intranet will use existing IT infrastructure, he says.
'Different departments have different bosses with different functions and perhaps different (software) modules,' Bruce says. 'This isn't the way people work. The old idea was to re-invent everything which was process-based.'
He suggests that the different job functions within departments across an enterprise meant that managers in those groups would commission software just to deal with their own particular needs. Just as the rays of the sun are inseparable from the sun itself, so that software would be wedded to a particular kind of hardware platform.
Although Bruce doesn't spell out what this means for resellers, there will be a tremendous opportunity for corporate resellers not only to integrate existing systems, service them and install them, but also exploit any hardware needs that may exist in an organisation.
One area which Oracle has discovered suffers from the departmental approach is financial software. Typically, Bruce claims, one department may use a general ledger while another may use quite different software to deal with customers and suppliers.
Oracle, he says, has created three interfaces for customers, suppliers and employees, as part of its Financials offerings. 'That gives customers or employees a view of what other people see across different functions,' he says. 'By Web enabling each of these modules, a browser becomes a vehicle for seeing things transparently across an enterprise.'
He claims that products like Oracle Supplier mean that employees and the enterprise will have effective systems which run through its supply chain. 'EDS worked out that, on average, only three per cent to five per cent of an enterprise's income is spent on IT,' he says. 'But with purchasing that can rise to 30 per cent, and with manufacturing 60 per cent, of income.'
That led the US outsourcing giant to come up with viable propositions it could put to corporations to increase their bottom line, he says. 'EDS goes to an MD and says it will raise its income by up to 10 per cent by using its techniques.'
The cost/benefit analysis of a corporation's needs is a compelling argument for corporate resellers. If they approach a company with similar proposals, they will be assured a warm welcome.
How, then, does a large company leverage its existing investment? Most companies have heteregeneous systems and making them all work together was the task of information centres and IT departments. But Bruce believes that resellers can do much to improve the bottom line for corporate customers.
'You bring everything together by adding a Web server in front of a database. You need to put in an agent program with software which understands the bits of data to extract and to send to the Web server.' That code, he says, is part of the Oracle toolset.
One of the problems with leveraging this new technology is the lack of understanding of the different technology terms used, Bruce says. 'People have to be clear about the meaning of the word intranet. At the moment, its meaning is not clear. Companies might have existing private networks like car manufacturers, dealers and other suppliers have. That's where an intranet becomes an easier way to implement these systems.'
Bringing these so-called private networks into the embrace of intranet/ Internet technology, will allow resellers to leverage their expertise at integration. This is an area which is still comparatively unexploited because the so-called 'private networks' can quite easily become a part of an intranet and be brought into the fold.
'Another obvious example is greenscreens,' says Bruce. The technology enables companies to use kit and systems which only a few years ago were thought to be old legacy systems, but which can successfully be integrated into a modern intranet/Internet system using, for example, Oracle technologies.
He has no doubt whatever that there is a lucrative opportunity for dealers to make money using these systems. 'The market will be worth #250 million in the UK alone in the calendar year June 1996 to June 1997,' he says.
Nor is this just a small window of opportunity which will close during the next few years.
'Although competition is hot, the biggest benefit (to resellers) is by leveraging companies' existing investment in documents and programs,' he claims. 'Our market share of more than 50 per cent in open systems means resellers that use our technology have a big opportunity.' The money is not in the Internet/intranet software as such, he says. 'People pay next to nothing for Web Server but they will pay for Oracle database usage.'
That means good opportunities for resellers that will be able to take advantage of large corporations' desire to have electronic noticeboards as part of their infrastructure. This alone will not be enough because just staring at flat screens of corporate information, albeit with pretty graphics, is not likely to hook a company into the system.
'People need to have a more active and personalised way of accessing the information,' he says. 'There must be an obvious mechanism to make a Web site connect to a corporate database. That's why I believe Oracle have so much to offer.' He claims that using Oracle tools and other software will allow corporations to customise the large amount of information they have stored in data repositories for individual departmental needs and that his company is ahead of the pack in developing other solutions.
These are early days in the development of intranets, but Bruce believes that Oracle is way ahead of the pack, despite the flood of announcements arriving practically every day from its main competitors, including Microsoft, Sybase and Informix.
None of the big vendors has more than a foothold in what is set to become an enormously lucrative market, and Oracle has an edge on these competitors, claims Bruce. 'Microsoft are trying to get a foothold here but it's in a different place to ours,' he says. 'Its software means it will work with small, rather than large, enterprise systems. We have the ability to have a very robust link between our Web Server and our database.'
Sybase is in a different league altogether, Bruce boasts. 'We're way ahead of Sybase. We had a CGI system three years ago and we're in a position where Web Server 3 is a fully compliant Corba system and fits into our network computer (NC) strategy.' According to Oracle, Web Server gives integrated scalable access to databases, has a strategy which allows cartridges to enable Web application and has an open architecture.
Although Bruce does not say so, Oracle has another advantage as far as the channel is concerned. Three years ago it began a painful transition away from a direct-selling approach to using two-tier distribution. The first appointment of a two-tier distributor was Terry McDonald's Sphinx Level V, while it took most of 1996 for the company to finally sign and seal an agreement with the mighty Azlan.
It has taken Oracle most of this period to convince resellers and its other partners of its seriousness in using an indirect model, and this may well give it an advantage over the other big players. Microsoft, for example, has always stoutly insisted it is convinced of the benefits of channel partners, but Simon Witt, enterprise manager at Microsoft UK, is on record as saying it needs to do more to involve its partners in an enterprise strategy. After a bad financial performance during 1996, Sybase has finally realised that its direct model is not enough for it to grow and prosper and now wants to involve resellers in a bid to win back market share and grow.
While Oracle has clearly struck up relationships with UK distributors that will help its cause, the signs are that corporate resellers may need to get their act together, and quickly, if they are going to reap the benefits of the technology. Bruce is reluctant to name reference sites - a sure sign from a vendor that the process of selling systems is still young. Ironically, one of its reference sites is VNU Business Publications, publisher of Internet Dealer, which uses an Oracle-based system for its Dealernet site. And when asked about corporate resellers it is currently working with, he names only Simmons Magee, which, he says 'is one of the most active integrators of Oracle software around the Web'.
The pace of intranet technology is, so far, being dictated by vendors, including Oracle which obviously has its own axe to grind. But it is also clear that if the channel does not get itself up to speed, and quickly, it is in danger of standing at the station while the intranet/ Internet gravy train chugs off into the distance.
All the illustrations in this article are taken from the Oracle UK Web site at http://www.uk.oracle.com/.
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