Oracle’s race to the cloud has offered multiple successes to its investors and some disappointment as well. No transition of this magnitude can be expected to run like clockwork but the difference between revenues for Oracle’s SaaS apps for last quarter, $1.1 billion, and those for its cloud infrastructure, IaaS, at $396 million, should at least get you thinking.
There’s a good explanation for this and it’s surprising that the company hasn’t done more to provide guidance to its financial analysts but then again, the purpose of reporting your finances is just that. There’s no room for anything that can look like an excuse. That’s too bad because it can lead people to wrong conclusions.
I spent a day at Oracle last week receiving a briefing on the company’s roadmap for the year ahead. While some of the information was presented under nondisclosure, I can say that the briefing ran the gamut and went into areas that I am not expert at such as serverless apps, bare metal servers, and the new autonomous database. But I am coming up to speed as fast as I can.
The company’s cloud architecture and IaaS offering gave me one surprise. Oracle intends to roll out 13 distinct regions for IaaS connected by a very high-speed backbone. Each region is highly modularized with triple redundancy and can easily scale as demand increases. All of this is very important because, I believe, this is not simply about cloud computing but about another disruptive innovation we will all face in the next few years.
The disruption is the formation of an information utility and it’s all but certain that no single corporate entity will own all of it. As big as Oracle’s plans are, Salesforce has similar ideas and while we’re at it so do Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Amazon, and a number of hosting services too numerous to mention. Yes, there will be consolidation and those too numerous vendors will likely be scooped up first.
But back to Oracle—$396 million is a lot of money but small change compared to its SaaS number and small compared with the company’s aspirations. The logical conclusion that many finance people drew from that number is that Oracle has a “problem” or that it’s not executing well in PaaS and IaaS, but really? Not exactly.
According to Oracle President of Product Development, Thomas Kurian, who led off the analyst briefing, only 3 of the 13 regions have been deployed so far. More will hit their markets this year but the rollout takes time and we’ll still be talking about it next year.
Not having the regions up and running means that in some strategic places, the company doesn’t have IaaS to sell. So the $396 million is a look into a still very much expanding world. Just for fun you could say that 3 of 13 is just under a quarter of the deployment. If the other regions were running as well as the three in place the IaaS and PaaS numbers might easily be four times the reported revenue number. It’s unclear if that’s good or not since we don’t know a lot such as capacity and utilization of the existing regions, but still…
So for now, the revenue picture remains lumpy but now we have more explanation and color for the results. Hopefully this also gives financial analysts something to consider as they try to figure out what the numbers mean to investors. The rest of the market seems to expect a bright future for Oracle as its stock continues to do well despite the lumpy earnings.
There’s also discussion about renewed competition in the database market circulating after a story in The Information suggested that companies like Amazon and Salesforce were building competitive database products and would depart Oracle in the near future. I don’t agree. If for nothing else, building a database is a big effort and one that detracts mightily from a company’s primary business interests. It is dilutive of effort and cannibalistic of resources. For these reasons it should only be taken on as a last resort. That’s the way any business should look at any effort to self-source rather than go to the marketplace for needed resources.
On top of that I spoke with Parker Harris CTO and co-founder of Salesforce recently and when asked about the story he said, “We have a good relationship with Oracle and we use a ton of it. We are not getting rid of the Oracle database. We are working on technologies that add capabilities around the edges, like sandboxes. We will have SQL Server and Oracle for a long time.”
No surprises there. It’s been true for a long time that in these big markets sometimes we compete and sometimes we cooperate. In the era of the Information Utility I expect a lot more co-opetition.
A couple of weeks ago Allison Arieff wrote a piece in the New York Times titled “Solving All the Wrong Problems” that gets to the heart of the technical times we live in and its focus is not what you might think. She includes a long list of things we can buy or subscribe to such as:
A service that sends someone to fill your car with gas.
A service that sends a valet on a scooter to you, wherever you are, to park your car.
An app that analyzes the quality of your French kissing.
A “smart” button and zipper that alerts you if your fly is down.
A sensor placed in your child’s diaper that sends you an alert when the diaper needs changing.
It goes on but you get the idea and you can always read the article here.
All of these things have in common the idea that just because we have the ability to make them doesn’t mean we should. Presumably the ones that got venture capital financing had someone asking, how does this make money and receiving an acceptable answer.
At about the same time this article ran, I needed a water heater so I went to a big box store and searched for—wait for it—someone to wait on me, to answer a few questions in other words. There were three models on display but in a perversion of good, better, best, there was standard, deluxe, and WiFi. The top of the line water heater could send information to my smartphone about, oh, I don’t know what really.
In my long life I’ve noticed that water heaters either work or they don’t. When they don’t work, I take a cold shower and summon a plumber to rectify the situation. The idea of having a water heater that I could interrogate through my smartphone seemed importantly like a moment in history when a new neurosis is proclaimed—hydrothermia gondii, perhaps.
But I have an explanation or actually two that seem to pacify my mind. The first harkens back to Linus Pauling, a two time Nobel Prize winner who once famously said that if you want to have good ideas, you need to have a lot of ideas. Translation, it’s a numbers game and most inventions don’t make the cut. Of the long list in the Times article, most if not all but the one that evaluates the quality your French kissing, are bound for history’s ash heap.
But Pauling’s point was that you never know what’s going to hit so you take the risk of ridicule and ruin for the chance of success and all that attends it. Still, some of these inventions up to an including the WiFi water heater strike me as over the top science fair faire.
The other reason in my mind might be closer to the truth. It’s that we’ve reached the end of the current paradigm. By paradigm, I mean the thing that frames our economic and social lives, the technology boom. According to the late Russian economist, Nicolai Kondratiev, a paradigm animates our economic lives and lasts between 50 and 60 years before another replaces it. Within a paradigm you can have trends and business cycles but the paradigm is ascendant.
You can know when the end is nigh because it gets really, really hard to innovate around the core tenets of the paradigm without bumping into something else that does pretty much the same thing. In other words, all of the niches are full. When that happens people try to invent niches which is why you get online water heaters and French kissing apps.
Eventually Kondratiev’s wheel turns again and we start anew with a different paradigm. But new paradigms are expensive; they result in what another economist, Joseph Schumpeter, called creative destruction in which some of the earlier and perfectly good established economic order is trashed. So, not surprisingly, the establishment will resist change which brings on a period of stasis.
You know you’re there when someone invents something equivalent to a sensor placed in your child’s diaper that sends you an alert when the diaper needs changing. Come to think of it, that’s a perfect metaphor for the times we live in. We’re waiting for change.
Well, how about them apples?
In a Reuters article out today, Microsoft said it wasn’t really pursuing Salesforce at this time citing the high cost—about $50 billion for the market cap and what must be calculated for a premium likely to be extracted from any would-be suitor.
As I have been saying, the time when Salesforce would have been a smart acquisition has long passed. When conditions were right for a purchase, the very shrewd people running software companies poo-pooed the whole idea of cloud computing and were not interested. Now, despite some credible efforts at building cloud infrastructures, these same companies have been disrupted.
The same Reuters article quotes Chief Executive Bill McDermott of SAP declining interest too, saying, “We have never bought something that was impaired and in decline.” Clearly implying that Salesforce’s cloud computing software was becoming commoditized—as if legacy on-premise software is still in its hay day.
What cheek. McDermott can only wish his company was as impaired and declining as rapidly as Salesforce. What exactly does impaired mean anyhow? Is it a new GAAP standard?
It takes prodigious amounts of moola to launch a company these days and that’s especially true when trying to insert a new idea into the collective consciousness. Salesforce spent well over $100 million to convince us that SaaS CRM was real, Zuora has raised nearly 2X that amount defining the subscription economy, and cloud ERP is following suit.
Today FinancialForce, a cloud ERP provider based on the Salesforce1 platform announced a financing round of $110 million from lead investor Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV) and Salesforce Ventures, Salesforce’s corporate investment group. This follows on the heels earlier this quarter of smaller investment announcements by CPQ providers Apttus, and Steel Brick. So what does it all mean?
I think you need to pay attention to the concentration of money and deals in a tight space of ERP and related back office apps. They’re all cloud companies and it strikes me that the investment community is making a decision about ERP granddaddy SAP in the process.
SAP has tried several times to bring forth a suite of front and back office solutions based on modern cloud technology and they’ve been only modestly successful. Microsoft has made greater strides in bringing its multiple ERP products closer to the cloud but progress has been measured. Time’s up and small ERP providers like FinancialForce, IntAcct, and not so small NetSuite have been gathering strength over many years. The economic conditions are right and the market is, I think, making a call that there’s no more runway for legacy ERP vendors to get to the cloud; it’s time to seek out the next generation of solutions.
The succession plan for replacing legacy ERP is well under way with a surround strategy that first positions cloud ERP as a helper application that can consolidate data, process it, and feed it up to the legacy system. This is a meta-stable state and will eventually result in the surrounding solutions supplanting the legacies, achieving over time what a much despised rip and replace would ordinarily accomplish without all the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Much of this is still in the future but for now, FinancialForce has taken an important step in preparing for a larger role in what is likely to be a big fight. The objective of the fight will be to secure stable cash generating relationships for many years to come.
Finally, more than once Marc Benioff, CEO Salesforce.com, has said he had no interest in building ERP but it looks like ERP is coming to his company regardless via the powerful platform technology, Salesforce1, that his company provides. Apttus, FinancialForce, Steel Brick, and other financial apps all coexist with Salesforce1 and some, like FinancialForce, are completely rooted there. Their success is also great validation for the platform.
I’d really hate to be a legacy ERP provider today.
Relentless might not be the first word you associate with Salesforce.com but in retrospect, it fits very well. Other words might include logical and well planned. President and Vice Chairman Keith Block came to Boston this week with a troupe of “forcers” to deliver the company’s post Dreamforce message to an appreciative audience.
Block’s message was augmented by his announcement of new offices at 500 Boylston Street housing 150 employees with ambition to double. Also, in a surprising move, Block announced the company’s intent to overtake SAP as the dominant enterprise software provider and number three overall global software company behind Microsoft and Oracle.
The world is a shark tank these days and Woody Allen’s adage that if you stop swimming you die is hard wired. But to hear such naked ambition was both a surprise and a statement of received wisdom. I have been discussing the company’s eventual ascension into the Fortune 500, for example, so the idea of this kind of rise is ambient. But saying it out loud tempts the childhood notion that if such aspirations are vocalized they might never come to pass.
But that’s all so much childish nonsense. Salesforce’s relentlessness well precedes this latest announcement and part of Block’s presentation retraced the company’s journey and accomplishments along the way, which includes Gartner Magic Quadrant leadership for Sales Cloud and Service Cloud as well as Platform. But it goes much deeper. There are various Forbes, Fortune, and other magazine coronations and accolades from MSNBC’s Jim Kramer for being consistently one of the best companies to work for, one of the fastest growing, and one of the most innovative companies on the planet. And magazine publishers apparently can’t get enough of Mr. Salesforce, Marc Benioff who’s been named one of the most respected CEOs and philanthropists.
Salesforce is, one could argue, the whole package, and not by accident — its relentless ambition is most visible in retrospect. So where to next? Block also used the occasion to announce the company’s intent to push vertical solutions into six broad industry categories including financial services/insurance, healthcare/life sciences, retail/consumer products, communications/media, public sector and automotive/manufacturing. It is a logical thing to do and emulates the bigger companies that Salesforce contends with, though at this level of granularity you might also say that, the designations are overly broad. However, you have to start somewhere.
For instance, manufacturing and automotive strongly suggest discrete manufacturing but this says nothing about process. Or does it? Retail and consumer beg the question of conventional vs. subscriptions, and healthcare and life sciences is a dog’s breakfast of care delivery, insurance, medical device manufacturing and more. It is also a walled garden maintained by thirty-plus year old mini-computer software. I could go on but all of this suggests not simply antagonists but real opportunity.
There isn’t a company under the sun that cannot benefit from a cloud and platform-based modernization of its sagging software from the last century. This is just the sort of thing that an ambitious company like Salesforce can turn its relentless drive towards.
To be sure there is plenty of competition. Oracle, Microsoft, and SAP all want to play in this new era as well and they are as relentless and ambitious as Salesforce. But Salesforce seems to uniquely understand that it lives in a multi-polar world, one where the winner take all approach of the last few decades in software is being replaced by cooperation and best of breed solutions.
This is also an era of diminished focus on transactions and increasing importance of process, which drives the need for platform. To one degree or another the others may offer cloud-based products and services but they are still wedded to a business model that Salesforce and its kin have made obsolete.