Thursday, February 25, 2010

Oracle GoldenGate

For large technology businesses acquisitions are a way of life. In the book Necessary But Not Sufficient by Eli Goldratt, the fictitious ERP company at the centre of the novel, BGSoft, has found itself making acquisitions in order to meet shareholder targets for sales and revenue - the only way high targets could ever be achieved was to buy another company and add their sales to BGSoft’s actual sales in order to reach the yearly goals. The company was not in a position to continue this strategy and in the story senior management try to develop new offerings in order to move into different markets instead.

Despite the book being pretty lame all round, I imagine that this situation is not far from the truth for large tech firms who have to operate "Acquisition for Growth" strategies, and it goes some way to explaining the unusual purchases some of these firms make. Microsoft has always been known for its aggressive acquisition strategy; Cisco were accused of buying research as opposed to doing any; HP picking up Compaq (technically a merger, but it felt like a buyout) was so wacky it contributed to Carly Fiorina losing her job; and over the years Oracle has made some odd decisions on how to spend its cash, not least of all the recent purchase of Sun, though upon closer inspection you can see where Larry was going with that one.

Mergers & Acquisitions = Murders & Executions (at least in "American Psycho")

The motivations behind acquisitions aren’t often clear, but every now and then a company buys another and it makes total sense, like when Oracle picked up the little known software firm GoldenGate and thus its data integration product of the same name.

Oracle sent out a rather low-key email alert to herald the addition of GoldenGate to their product portfolio so I was surprised to discover upon further investigation what this new product really is. Oracle GoldenGate (as it’s now known) is software that allows users to synchronise data between databases, in any direction, regardless of the database software or platform its running on, in real-time, without touching the data in the database. So, with GoldenGate it is possible to synchronise data between, for example, an Oracle database running on AIX and a SQL Server database on Windows Server 2003. Not only can data be replicated from a source database to a target, but any changes that occur on the source can be applied, in real-time, to the target. Using GoldenGate, it’s possible to keep two databases in sync even if they run on totally different platforms.

From a technical standpoint, what makes GoldenGate special is how the designers leveraged the architecture of the database systems their software works with. Enterprise scale RDBMS don’t write data directly to database files but instead utilise intermediary log files to allow for concurrency and resilience. GoldenGate reads the log files not the database itself to determine what data goes where. It extracts the data into “Trail Files” that it transports over standard network infrastructure to the target system where it is loaded, performing operations on the data along the way if so desired. The reading of the source databases transaction log files to extract data and changes means that data stored within the database is untouched and therefore the overall performance of the system is unaffected.

Golden Gate - an image normally associated with a different technology firm...

At first, the ability to perform these types of actions seemed obvious, but when I thought about how to achieve real-time data synchronisation with the existing Oracle offerings I realised just how powerful this software is – it’s a far cry from database links and materialised views, and when you consider that the database doesn’t have to be Oracle at all you begin to imagine all types of areas where this can be of real use, which is why Oracle’s promotional literature offers a series of scenarios where they envision GoldenGate to be a critical component. The key areas Oracle focuses on are:
  • Data Synchronisation
  • Zero Downtime Upgrades & Migrations
  • Disaster Recovery & Data Protection
  • Operational Reporting
  • Operational Real-Time Business Intelligence
  • Support for Event Driven Architectures and Service Orientated Architectures (EDA/SOA)
Oracle's purchase of GoldenGate is going to have major repercussions if they are able to fully integrate the technology as they plan to. Oracle Streams is soon to be extinct as a result, and DataGuard had better watch its back too. GoldenGate really feels like one of those game changing technologies that only come along every now and then.

What Oracle has really done with their acquisition of GoldenGate is bring the software into the mainstream. As a standalone offering it was interesting, but now with the might of Oracle behind it GoldenGate is a must-have for the large enterprise with serious data integration concerns, despite the high price tag Oracle have put on the software.

Oracle adapting this technology, either by development or in this case purchasing it, not only makes sense, it actually makes you wonder what took them so long?


Larry Ellison – Oracle CEO:

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Everything I know about Career Advancement, I learned from watching... Robocop

As a serious fan of movies I love it when I watch something very familiar and gleen something new from the viewing, like some obscure detail in a scene that adds a new dimension to the story. Recently I caught an airing of Robocop on the TV - which is a classic example of once again watching a film I have on DVD just because it's that good.

...from the director of gems like "Showgirls" and "Hollow Man"

As I watched this classic piece of 80's sci-fi my mind drifted to the different things that films can teach us. Some movies are pure entertainment, some tell a story that needs to be told and some, like horror films (I'm a huge fan of horror movies) are actually modern day morality plays designed to teach the audience serious lessons (teen slasher flicks usually preach about the dangers of drink, drugs, and promiscuity - check out Scream for an overview of this and Halloween to see it in action).

At its core Robocop (1987) is about humanity, though there are subtexts about technology, greed, corruption, and the absence of an afterlife. For those unfamiliar with the flick, here is a brief synopsis:

In the not too distant future crime is rampant in the city of Detroit (kinda like it is today). Things have gotten so bad that a large private organisation has bought up most of the land around the city and is about to commence building a whole new city. In order to facilitate their little scheme they've taken over the running of the police force and haven't really been playing fair in terms of industrial relations with the boys in blue, having run the force down to the point where they're about to go on strike. The company behind the new city - OCP - are beginning to turn their attention to making sure the big local crime problem doesn't follow them into their new city, so their security division, headed up by hard boiled executive Dick Jones, have designed and built a badass robotic killing machine that can be programmed to be a cop or, more suitably, setup for military use.

Dick Jones and the ED-209 - OCP's answer to the iPod

However, Jones' department are more concerned with selling spare parts for a massive profit then ensuring their product actually works, and at the unveiling of the new device the ED-209 kills a member of the OCP board. Sensing an opportunity, Bob Morton, a subordinate of Dick Jones, suggests that a project he's been working on might be a suitable alternative. Given his chance, Morton puts his "Robocop" plan in motion.

It turns out that Robocop is to be a cyborg (basically a robot with bits of person built in) and the human pieces are to come from a police officer. A fine example of a police officer who'd be an ideal candidate for the Robocop programme (if something unfortunate should happen to him) is Alex Murphy, newly reassigned to the most dangerous precint in Detroit. On his first day in the new job Murphy and his partner run afoul of arch-crook Clarence Boddicker and his gang, who are just after making their getaway from a robbery. Murphy is killed in the line of duty and thus "volunteers" to become Robocop.

Robocop is a huge success and a great piece of PR for OCP, going around town taking out the bad guys. Bob Morton, riding on the success of his project, is promoted and is enjoying the high-life. His formor boss, Jones, is not one bit happy with this turn of events and it becomes apparent that he and Boddicker (renowed cop-killer, drug dealer, and bad-egg) are in cahoots. Jones sends Boddicker round to Morton's place one night to kill him before setting out to take down Robocop too.

Remove the "Jones" and this shirt gets you in serious bother!

There are many points of interest in this film but he single most important lesson to take from Robocop is this - before you make a move on anything (especially something like taking advantage of a promotion opportunity when someone else has messed up), be absolutely certain, absolutely, totally, and utterly, CERTAIN that you have all the relevant information in your possession before you open your mouth never mind do anything!

Bob Morton was missing an important fact about his boss Dick Jones. Morton thought that Jones was just another hard boiled executive type, a boardroom warrior and tough nut at work, but probably just another prick behind it all. What Bob didn't know was that Dick Jones was mates with Clarence Boddicker - notorious Cop killer and all-round vagabond. This little nugget of information would probably have led Bob to keeping his trap shut after the ED-209 demo and therefore would likely have saved his life, nevermind his career.

Bob Morton - if he knew what we knew he'd 'ave stayed stchum, y'know?

The fact that Morton didn't know about his boss' friends is no real surprise, how many of us can say we know everything about any of our colleagues, or in some cases, anything? In the real world this lack of knowledge is probably not going to result in the same consequences poor old Bob suffered but it highlights how necessary it is to be informed. Most people know that information is power, but how seriously is this considered? On a personal level, this is a situation dealt with by working at developing relationships in the workplace with our colleagues as opposed to just putting up with them during the day because you have to (like wearing a tie).

Beyond being buddies with the person in the cubicle beside you a little simple observation goes a long way. A friend of mine was telling me recently about a book he read on the subject of luck. A series of experiments were conducted with people who described themselves as either lucky or unlucky and the experiment that stuck in my friends mind involved sticking £5 (it was in the UK) to the door of a cafe with a note saying to take the money. The lucky and unlucky people were sent into the cafe one at a time. The lucky people all took the money while the unlucky ones didn't. When they investigated why this happened, the people running the experiment discovered something interesting about the "unlucky" people - they hadn't seen the money! They didn't need to visit the optician, they needed to be more observant.

Keeping an eye out means that you can not only spot an opportunity but can also know enough about all the factors to be able to make a good decision. The counterpoint to this is the "Analysis Paralysis" problem, whereby no one wants to make a decision as they believe they're still lacking information. Decisiveness is necessary to get anything done but a little critical thought can save a lot of trouble later on. If only poor Bob Morton had noticed that Detroit's most wanted was calling in to see his boss every now and then (enough times for Jones' PA to recognise Boddicker), he might have saved himself a lot of bother.

Bob Morton - Watching me, Watching you

Saturday, February 6, 2010

House of Pain and the Deadly Art of Business Analysis

My current contract has come to an end and I am facing into a new role starting on Monday. So, my next assignment beckons but, as House of Pain famously asked, "How d'ya know where ya're goin if ya don't look back?" So, with the last contract just over, and in the best traditions of PRINCE 2, what were the lessons learned from the past seven months?

Management Gurus "House of Pain"

My previous employer is operating in very difficult circumstances, their industry is second only to construction in terms of how badly impacted they are by the current economic climate and this has led to a severe downsizing of operations which has in turn created a series of problems. This round of redundancies is really only the latest instalment in a protracted series of measures that have seen this particular company go from once employing nearly five hundred people to now having a little over thirty direct employees and a handful of contractors.

During my time there I often wondered what could be done to improve matters. I thought very seriously about this question and wrote up and presented two of my ideas to upper management, one concerning the exploitation of a new channel to market and the other dealing with changing the way sales reps made deals with customers and processed product pricing changes in real time. The first of these ideas met with interest but is unlikely to be developed with the market and the company in their current states. The second idea is being implemented as part of a small group of systems changes that, all going well, will be introduced over the coming months. All going well.

Now that my contract is over I can spend a little time looking at the overall state of the company and ponder what technology could do to help improve the businesses operations. In a nutshell, how can IT save a business?

The first issue that I would recommend they deal with is the overly complex systems they currently have in place. The systems my previous employer are using were originally implemented for a much larger business that was primarily focused on manufacturing. A good example of such a system is the Business Intelligence tool Crystal Enterprise - 30 employees is not enough people to justify having a complete installation of Crystal Enterprise as there simply isn't anyone on staff to manage it and the conflicting ideas about reports development from around the business mean that two people can often have two wildly different notions about what's going on. The root of this problem lies in the fact that there is no comprehensive set of reports that should be in common use. A survey of all the interested parties could lead to the development of maybe twenty or thirty reports that could form the cornerstone of the Business Intelligence requirements for the entire organisation, a set for Finance, a set for Sales, and so on. Without taking a more generic approach to reporting, the business would need to dedicate a resource to managing the reporting, a highly unlikely eventuality.

This isn't me - it's just some geezer with a dodgy beard

With sales dwindling the need to actively manage the sales process becomes increasingly urgent and here a simple, effective Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system would come in useful. In fact, when my contract began the absence of a CRM, considering the nature of the customer base and the obvious possibilities for up-selling and the use of promotional campaigns, was a real surprise.

Across the organisation there was, and is, a deep need for a significant Business Process Re-engineering project. The old ways for doing things are not working but the people in the business are too close and too “busy” to re-work their processes. In all projects like this a fresh perspective would be best and it was because of this that I was able to develop the new method for processing pricing deals for individual customers. This simple idea would remove about forty man-hours a week from routine processes and in cash terms save the equivalent of one mid-level employees salary as well as making it easier for sales reps in the field to do their jobs and deliver customer orders in a more timely manner. It's likely that after a full review of all processes the implementation of a workflow application - something like Lotus Notes or, more likely, Sharepoint - would make several business processes easier to manage, particularly where management approvals (for example raising purchase orders, or granting systems access to a new employee) are essential.

The business is smaller than it was but the processes are still bureaucratic in nature and meant to be operated by more people, with risk management controls in place between those people, controls that added a layer of security in the past but now act as a severe barrier to routine tasks. Understandably, as the business suffers in the current marketplace there is a great deal of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) about the place, and unfortunately this is having an effect on management decision making. Non-technology issues, like channel development, are going to sit on the back burner until managers work their way out of the grip of FUD they are in - they have become risk-averse due to the dangers of their operating environment coupled with the heavy risk management procedures they got used to working with over the years. Basically, management need to take the risks necessary to make their business successful once more and accept that simply operating the business is a huge risk.

Management need to deal with internal communication issues, Leaders need to lead (if they can) or be replaced. Big decisions need to be made and communicated to employees, who are terrified about the future and all desperately trying to decide if they should jump ship or stick around for a redundancy cheque. The use of short-term continuations of temporary contracts only adds to the fears of all employees as they only make everyone ask what happens after those contracts expire, and why was that date chosen for the end of the contract? If management are only operating on short-term goals then they are not laying any groundwork for the future so there will be no pay-off down the road.

There are always lessons to be learned from every organisation, in this case I learned a tremendous amount about how ERP systems operate on a daily basis and the pitfalls of ERP and other business systems. Of course, working in a business that is suffering in tough economic times can feel like graduating from the school of hard knocks, but in an odd way I'm glad I've had the chance to experience it. I've seen the best and worst in people and have been very impressed with the capability to deal with adversity that has been displayed. To those who took redundancy I wish them well, and to those who plan to develop their own businesses I tip my hat to their entrepreneurial spirit and ability to make lemonade from lemons.

To all leaders everywhere, I can only stress the need for clear and open communication as it is the magic bullet that helps kill Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.