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Posted Jul 13, 2005

Where Did Oracle Come From? - Page 2

By Steve Callan

Who was First to Use the Relational Model?

In the early 1970's, IBM's System R "was intended to provide a high-level, nonnavigational, data-independent interface to many users simultaneously, with high integrity and robustness." By the end of the 1970's, IBM had experimented with "a full-function, multi-user version." One of the main results of that effort was the development of a structured query language, or SQL.

At roughly the same time in the 70's, the product known as Ingres was being developed by scientists at UC Berkeley. Funding for Ingres came from a variety of sources, chief among them being various branches of the military. The Ingres project used its own query language (QUEL), but SQL is what has become the standard.

There were some significant differences between System R and Ingres. The source code for System R was kept private, whilst that of Ingres was freely available. System R was meant to be sold; Ingres was freely distributed to the academic community. Additionally, System R, being produced in the commercial arena, was competing with other resources within IBM. Ingres was new and could go any direction as needed.

System R, did, however, create the opportunity for another system to come along. IBM was sitting atop a gold mine and did not realize it. Lawrence Ellison recognized the potential of what System R had to offer, and that gave rise to the company and relational database system named Oracle.

Oracle's Beginning

In 1977, Lawrence Ellison, along with cofounders Bob Miner and Ed Oates, founded a company named Software Development Laboratories. In 1979, as the renamed Relational Software Inc., the first commercial version was released, running on the Digital PDP-11. Interestingly, the first released version was Version 2 - the "2" conveying the idea that all the bugs had been worked out since Version 1, of which, there was no such version. In 1983, the company was renamed to Oracle (it was a name of a project Ellison had worked on for the CIA). Today, Oracle is the largest relational database system vendor and the world's second largest independent software company.

Originally designed to run on the VMS/VAX computer system, Oracle today can be found on every version of UNIX, most versions of Windows, and a slew of other platforms. In fact, Oracle currently lists support for 77 platforms under its "Certify & Availability" link on its support Web site (MetaLink). The Oracle Web site shows a timeline of significant events and accomplishments (http://www.oracle.com/corporate/history.html).

Starting out as a pure database company, the company's chief strength today is still in the RDBMS market. Oracle also has a successful line of products used for development, presentation and reporting (Forms and Reports); Web services (Application Server); and enterprise management software (Oracle Applications, recently augmented by its acquisition of PeopleSoft).

For an interesting perspective of Oracle's beginnings, read The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison: Inside Oracle Corporation: God Doesn't Think He's Larry Ellison. The book paints a somewhat less than flattering view of Mr. Ellison as a person, but as a shark in corporate waters, he is a very efficient and successful killing machine. How many times can a company get away with promising functionality that does not exist yet, or inflate/manipulate sales figures without being caught by stockholders or regulatory agencies? If the product is that good, it appears the answer to the first question has no limit. The answer to the second question - well, that practice did catch up with Oracle and it nearly sunk the company.

Perhaps the greatest selling strength Oracle possesses today is its support for a wide range of platforms. SQL Server is very good in many ways, and is relatively inexpensive when compared to Oracle. Unfortunately, for SQL Server, it is now and forever tied to the Windows operating system.

In Closing

Virtually all great inventions start with an idea. The music industry's CD-ROM format, for example, started because a music aficionado wanted a better way to hear and preserve what was on vinyl records (do you even know the inventor's name?). Years and years went by before that idea caught on, but when it did, it signaled the demise of the cassette tape.

What are those key moments in time and how can you (or will you) recognize them when something brilliant is proposed? Does the implementation of your idea sit on the shelf for a decade? Does your employer take steps to downplay the significance of your proposal? And how hard would you be willing to work to sell the idea? Your use of Oracle today is due in large part to Dr. Codd's persistence and Lawrence Ellison's vision. What is the next (or current) unappreciated model or IT-related invention waiting to be discovered?

Suggested Readings

Listed below are some references used in this article. If you haven't explored the history of Oracle, these represent a good starting point to begin your investigation.

Codd, E.F. "A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks." Communications of the ACM 13.6 (1970): 377-387. 20 May 2005 <http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/362384.362685>

United States. National Academy of Sciences. Funding a Revolution: Government Support for Computing Research. Washington: National Academy Press, 1999. 20 May 2005 <http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/far/ch6.html>

Wilson, Mike. The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison: Inside Oracle Corporation: God Doesn't Think He's Larry Ellison. HarperCollins: New York, 1998.

» See All Articles by Columnist Steve Callan

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