A Silicon Valley stalwart wants to change direction. Will it work?
一位硅谷老将想要改换方向。能成功吗?

最后一战 Larry’s last stand-书迷号 shumihao.com

LARRY WHO? A few weeks ago asking a young tech worker in Silicon Valley about Larry Ellison, co-founder, former boss and now chief technology officer of Oracle, might have elicited blank stares. More surprising, given that his company is still the world’s second-largest software-maker, a follow-up question might have been: “Remind me what Oracle sells?”
“谁?拉里啥?”几周前,若向硅谷某个年轻的科技员工问起拉里·埃里森(Larry Ellison)这位甲骨文的联合创始人、前首席执行官、现任首席技术官,对方可能会一脸茫然地看着你。更让你想不到的是,尽管埃里森的公司仍是全球第二大软件制造商,对方可能会接着问:“能告诉我甲骨文是卖啥的吗?”

Being treated like a has-been must have irked the 76-year-old Mr Ellison. In Oracle’s heyday 20 years ago he was Silicon Valley’s best-known rogue billionaire—yesteryear’s Elon Musk. “The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison”, one of the many books written about the firm and its colourful founder, was subtitled “God Doesn’t Think He Is Larry Ellison”.
被人像过气人物那样对待一定让76岁的埃里森很恼火。在20年前甲骨文的鼎盛时期,他是硅谷最出名的怪咖亿万富翁,好比如今的伊隆·马斯克。有许多书籍讲述甲骨文和它有趣的创始人的故事,其中一本名为《上帝与埃里森的不同》(The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison),副标题是《上帝不认为自己是埃里森》(God Doesn’t Think He Is Larry Ellison)。

Now he and his firm are back in the headlines, thanks to something that, in software terms, is about as far from Oracle’s bread and butter of corporate databases as jelly beans are from white toast. Its deal to team up with TikTok has made its brand recognisable even to many teenagers—the main clientele of the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform. Whether the notoriety lasts more than 15 seconds, the length of a typical TikTok video, is another matter.
现在,埃里森和他的公司重回新闻头条,靠的是从软件方面来看和甲骨文的看家业务企业数据库风马牛不相及的东西。甲骨文与TikTok的合作协议甚至让许多青少年都认识了它的品牌,他们是这个中资视频分享平台的主要用户群。这带来的名声会否持续15秒(一段TikTok视频一般是这么长)以上则是另一回事了。

Attempts at reinvention are nothing new in Silicon Valley. It can be made harder by lucrative legacy businesses; just ask IBM, another once-great information-technology (IT) giant that has been sliding into irrelevance. Oracle would rather emulate Microsoft, which has ridden the cloud revolution to a market capitalisation of $1.6trn and stellar returns (see chart). The TikTok arrangement, which would see Oracle host the app’s data in its cloud, confirms that is Mr Ellison’s plan. Like the transaction—which could yet be blocked by President Donald Trump—Oracle’s metamorphosis is not, however, a done deal just yet.
在硅谷,尝试自我重塑并不是什么新鲜事。企业拥有利润丰厚的传统业务可能会让这件事变得更难——问问另一个曾经辉煌但已逐渐淡出人们视线焦点的IT巨头IBM就知道了。甲骨文应该更想效仿微软,后者借云计算革命的东风,把公司市值推高到了1.6万亿美元,并取得了亮眼的回报(见图表)。根据与TikTok的协议,甲骨文将把该应用的数据放到自己的云服务器中,这证实了埃里森的确计划效仿微软。但是,正如这宗交易仍可能被特朗普阻止,甲骨文的蜕变也还未成定局。

Since its founding in 1977 Oracle has been the odd one out in Silicon Valley—less focused on inventing the next new thing and more on signing the next big contract. By the mid-1990s it dominated the market for “relational” databases, which underlie corporate applications from book-keeping to supply-chain management. After the dotcom crash in the early 2000s it used its pile of cash and high share price to consolidate swathes of the IT industry. Within a few years it acquired several software rivals, including BEA Systems and PeopleSoft, as well as Sun Microsystems, a maker of powerful computers. It is still hard to find a sizeable firm that does not send a cheque to Oracle’s snazzy headquarters in Redwood City. With customers locked in by the sheer tedium of switching databases, Oracle could extract huge profits. In its last financial year the company earned a net income of more than $10bn on revenue of nearly $40bn.
自1977年成立以来,甲骨文在硅谷一直是个异类——不怎么在意发明“下一个新事物”,而是努力签下下一份大合同。到90年代中期,甲骨文已称霸“关系”数据库(是从簿记到供应链管理的企业应用程序的基础)市场。本世纪初互联网泡沫破裂后,甲骨文利用自身充沛的资金和高股价在IT行业里大肆并购。短短几年内,它收购了多家对手软件公司,包括BEA系统(BEA Systems)和仁科软件(PeopleSoft),还有高性能计算机制造商太阳微系统(Sun Microsystems)。现在仍然很难找到哪家规模较大的公司不需要给甲骨文位于雷德伍德的时髦总部献上支票。转换数据库异常繁琐,客户就此被锁定,凭这一点甲骨文可以赚取丰厚利润。在上个财政年度,该公司的营收接近400亿美元,净收入超过100亿美元。

Success in old IT was a big reason why Oracle was late to the new sort: cloud computing. Mr Ellison long dismissed it as a faddish label for existing technology. By the time he realised it was an epochal shift in IT, Oracle had fallen behind. Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI), as it calls its offering, is said to have sales of less than $2bn annually, compared with more than $40bn for Amazon Web Services (AWS). The e-commerce titan’s market-leading cloud unit is valued at several times Oracle’s market capitalisation of $178bn. Cloud-based rivals of the sort that Mr Ellison once dismissed, such as Adobe and Salesforce, are worth around a quarter more than his firm.
在传统IT业里的成功是甲骨文在云计算这一新领域落后的一大原因。在很长时间里,埃里森都认为云计算不过是给现有技术贴上一张时髦标签而已。当他意识到这是IT业的划时代变革时,甲骨文已经落后了。据称,甲骨文云基础设施(Oracle Cloud Infrastructure,以下简称OCI)的年销售额不到20亿美元,而亚马逊云服务(以下简称AWS)的年销售额超过400亿美元。这家电商巨头的云计算部门引领市场,估值是整个甲骨文市值(1780亿美元)的几倍。埃里森从前不屑Adobe和Salesforce等基于云计算的竞争对手,而如今它们的市值比甲骨文高出约四分之一。

Even in databases, Oracle’s core business, the world has moved on. For many new applications, such as customer-facing websites, its tools are too expensive and inflexible. Recent years have seen the rise of more specialised digital repositories, many of them in the cloud and based on malleable “open source” software. According to Gartner, a research firm, Oracle’s share of the database market fell from nearly 44% in 2013 to 28% last year. And it has yet to shake off a reputation for antagonising clients with things like audits to verify their use of software by workers—and hefty charges for firms that exceed licence limits. Brent Thill of Jefferies, a bank, echoes other Oracle bears when he says that the company has been stuck for years even as “we are living in the data age, the biggest tech-boom ever.”
即使在数据库这个甲骨文的核心业务领域里,世界也已朝新方向迈进。对于许多新应用(如面向客户的网站)而言,甲骨文的工具太昂贵又不灵活。近年来兴起了更专门的数字存储库,其中许多建在云上且基于可延展的“开源”软件。根据研究公司高德纳(Gartner)的调查,去年,甲骨文在数据库市场的份额从2013年的近44%下降到28%。而且它至今未能摆脱与客户为敌的声名,比如审计核查客户的员工使用甲骨文软件的情况,对超出许可证限制的公司收取巨额费用。投资银行杰富瑞(Jefferies)的布伦特·希尔(Brent Thill)同样看空甲骨文,表示在“我们处于数据时代,史上最大的科技繁荣期”之时,这家公司已多年裹足不前。

Seers of a brighter future
预见更光明未来

Oracle optimists counter that the firm has a few things going for it. One is management. The death last October of a co-CEO, Mark Hurd, left Safra Catz as the woman in charge. She is widely considered an effective operator. Mr Ellison, who stepped down as chief executive in 2014, has in recent years taken a more active role in product development—considered his forte—without treading on Ms Catz’s toes. The upshot, says Ted Friedman of Gartner, is better technology such as the “autonomous database”, which uses artificial intelligence to automate work once reserved for human IT administrators. For example, it allows software updates to be installed without shutting systems down, a dreaded procedure which can go badly wrong.
看好甲骨文的人则反驳说这家公司仍具备一些优势。一是管理。去年10月,甲骨文的联席CEO马克·赫德(Mark Hurd)去世,留下女CEO萨弗拉·卡兹(Safra Catz)独当一面。外界普遍认为她是个能干的经营者。埃里森在2014年卸任首席执行官,近年来更多从事产品开发这项被公认是他强项的工作,不干涉卡兹的管理。高德纳的泰德·弗里德曼(Ted Friedman)表示,这样的结果是甲骨文能开发出像“自治数据库”这样更好的技术。这种数据库运用人工智能自动完成以往需要人类IT管理员完成的工作,比如无需关闭系统就能完成软件更新,避免了可能严重出错的令人生畏的一步。

OCI enjoys the latecomer advantage in the cloud, says Clay Magouyrk, one of its leaders. “We did not have to take the circuitous path others had to take to get it right,” he says. Mr Magouyrk points to Oracle’s next-generation cloud platform, which will, among other things, offer hundreds of local sub-clouds that let customers keep their data close to home, as privacy regulations may require them to. In April Zoom, a videoconferencing service, opted for OCI to help it manage pandemic-fuelled growth (mostly because Oracle charges less for the use of its networks). Landing the TikTok contract would be another boost: the video app spends an estimated $1bn annually on cloud-computing services.
甲骨文高管克莱·马古伊克(Clay Magouyrk)认为OCI在云计算方面享有后发优势。“我们不用走别人为了找到正确方向而不得不走的那些弯路。” 他说。他以甲骨文的下一代云平台为例。该平台将提供的诸多功能之一是成百上千的次级云,能让客户就近保存自家数据,因为隐私法规可能会要求它们这么做。今年4月,视频会议服务商Zoom选择使用OCI来帮助管理因新冠疫情而增长的业务(主要是因为甲骨文的网络服务收费较低)。若能得到TikTok这份合同,将会是另一个提振:该视频应用每年在云计算服务上的支出约为10亿美元。

A bigger opportunity for Oracle lies in cloud-based applications. It has begun converting some of its existing customers to these programs, which are more sophisticated than the basic computing and storage offered by AWS and OCI, observes Mark Moerdler of Bernstein, a broker. The company’s bundle of cloud-based services already accounts for 8% of its software revenue; sales have been growing by more than 30% a year.
甲骨文更大的机遇来自基于云的应用。据经纪公司盛博的分析师马克·莫德勒(Mark Moerdler)观察,甲骨文已开始把部分现有客户转到这类程序上,它们的功能比AWS和OCI的基本计算和存储更加先进。该公司的各类云服务已占其软件营收的8%,销售额每年增长30%以上。

The wild card is Oracle’s political bets. The firm has positioned itself close to Mr Trump. In 2016 Ms Catz served on the president’s transition team and this year Mr Ellison hosted a fund-raiser for him. This did not help them win a lucrative cloud contract with the Department of Defence; OCI was not technically up to snuff. But being in the White House’s good graces may have helped Oracle beat Microsoft (which won the Pentagon contract) to the TikTok deal. If the deal succeeds—a big “if”—Oracle’s cloud may emerge as a digital haven for companies seeking to reassure Washington that their data are safe from prying Communist eyes in Beijing amid the Sino-American tech cold war.
变数在于甲骨文的政治押注。该公司已选择走到特朗普那一边。卡兹曾于2016年加入特朗普的过渡团队,而今年埃里森又为特朗普举办过一场竞选筹款活动。这倒没有帮助他们拿下利润丰厚的国防部云合同——OCI在技术上还达不到要求,合同最终被微软拿下。但与白宫交好可能帮助了甲骨文在这次TikTok交易中打败了微软。假如交易最终达成(不确定性还很大),那么对那些想在中美科技冷战中让华盛顿确信自己的数据不受北京方面监视的公司来说,甲骨文的云计算可能会成为一个数字避风港。

It is, then, too early to write Oracle off. When a group of youngish cloud-services CEOs recently met reporters on a Zoom call, they were unanimous in their assessment. Jennifer Tejada of PagerDuty, which helps firms manage IT incidents, summed it up: “You have to respect Oracle for finding ways to keep itself relevant.” Relevance is not the same as fast growth, which may prove elusive given competition from AWS and others. But it is better than the digital dustbin of obscurity.■
所以,说甲骨文不会成功蜕变还为时过早。在最近一次通过Zoom举办的记者会上,一群颇为年轻的云服务CEO表达了一致的看法。帮助企业管理IT事故的PagerDuty的詹妮弗·特贾达(Jennifer Tejada)总结道:“甲骨文能找到办法让自己留在醒目位置,这一点让你不得不尊敬它。”醒目不等于快速增长,而考虑到来自AWS等公司的竞争,甲骨文也许难以实现快速增长。但这总好过被扔进数字垃圾箱,湮没无闻。