Oracle user groups testify to company's change for the better

Two Oracle user support groups offer insight into Oracle's evolving attitudes on customer feedback, licensing, and open source

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From the outside, it's hard to shake the view of Oracle as a monolith that innovates little and changes less. After all, anything that big is hard to turn on a dime, let alone change course entirely.

But the advocacy and support groups stumping for Oracle users have seen changes they feel are worth mentioning.

For insight into the way Oracle has evolved both in the short and long term, I turned to two such groups: the OAUG (Oracle Application Users Group) and the IOUG (Independent Oracle Users Group).

Alyssa Johnson, president of the OAUG, says her group focuses on aiding users of Oracle's core line-of-business products, such as EBS (E-Business Suite), Hyperion, Fusion, and Cloud Applications. As an example of how Oracle's attitude toward customers has changed, she cited an OpenWorld announcement involving a pilot project that launched last year and used an Oracle support community that gathered enhancement requests -- essentially, desired product features -- for EBS.

"People didn't really have a lot of visibility into what was happening with the enhancement requests," Johnson said. "Now customers and users can actually go in and vote on those enhancement requests, and I think most importantly you're going to have visibility from development on which ones they're working on. You're going to see what the progress is." The project was confined to gathering requests for one aspect of E-Business Suite, but as of OpenWorld, another 21 product support communities for EBS applications have been announced.

Johnson also confirmed that many of the people submitting feedback would come from the IT side, rather than the business side alone. "Most of the people who would be going into these support communities would have a login to My Oracle Support, and so they're going to be more in your IT group," she said.

John Matelski, president of the IOUG, agreed that "the major difference between Oracle once upon a time and today is there is much greater focus on soliciting input and feedback from customers." In an email, he stated, "Oracle seems to realize that the greater the increase in customer loyalty, the easier it is to work with the customer.... This transformation has facilitated real results, where customers actually now have a way to provide influence into strategy and direction."

Johnson points out another major change: "There are a lot more products and applications today [from Oracle] than there were 15 years ago." This process is further complicated by Oracle's acquisitions of third-party products, which often change drastically after acquisition.

Since the OAUG's mission includes providing customer feedback to Oracle about such products, the group has broadened its reach and provided a wider range of details.

Matelski also pointed out that one of the most common complaints about Oracle -- its licensing structure -- stems from acquisitions. Transferring other companies' apps "to an Oracle model of licensing is not seamless," he noted. But the good news is that "Oracle in turn has taken our input, and input from a number of other customer channels and has been putting greater focus on making it easier for customers to license their products."

Oracle's push for its customers to adopt cloud editions of its products is typically cited as a cost-saving measure. Johnston agreed, though the exact savings are likely to vary, given the differences in pricing for Oracle applications among customers. While the cost savings involved exist as a whole package, she said, what matters most is whether or not a cloud edition will meet a business's needs, and gaps still exist there.

Oracle's open source involvements, especially when it comes to MySQL, are of natural interest to developers. Matelski observed vis-à-vis MySQL that the community for it is loosely woven and with little formal structure. While the IOUG works to bring together the group, "we are realistically just touching a small subset of that community," he said.

"Oracle has the same issue as the IOUG, but on a global scale.  A majority of the MySQL community does not care about who 'owns' the technology or who is supporting it. They look at MySQL as an open source database and want to continue receiving support from each other through the community rather than a vendor. This is what makes bringing the MySQL community together a challenging endeavor."

On balance, Matelski feels Oracle's stance on open source is positive, and the company offers "choice, flexibility, and lower cost of computing" to its users, for both MySQL and Java: "Oracle is clearly embracing and offering leading open source solutions as a viable choice for development and deployment." He also cited Oracle's membership in the OpenStack Foundation and its plans for integrating OpenStack functionality into "a broad set of Oracle products and cloud services."

That said, pleasing the open source community as a whole is likely less a priority for Oracle, compared to pleasing the open source-using segment of the company's customer base -- the folks IOUG and OAUG aim to aid. As long as Oracle customers in general can walk away happier, that ought to count as progress.

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