If Oracle's technical team were half as effective as its marketing team, Microsoft and SQL Server might really be in trouble. But to Microsoft's advantage, Oracle's recent product announcements and its latest million-dollar challenge show that the Oracle marketing department's achievements far outstrip its development team's technical improvements in the new Oracle9i. If you missed the announcement, Oracle recently issued its Oracle9i Application Server and Database Web Site Performance Guarantee. The guarantee states that Oracle will pay $1 million to any user who can demonstrate that the Oracle9i Application Server and Database product doesn't yield a threefold performance improvement over the user's current SQL Server implementation.

At first, this challenge sounds impressive. You replace your current Web server and database server with Oracle's. If the new system doesn't run three times faster, then you get a million bucks. Oracle must be confident that it has a superior product. But on closer inspection, this challenge looks funnier than Dr. Evil's threat to take over the world unless the United Nations pays him "one...miiiiilllllliiion...dollars."

First, the fine print of Oracle's challenge reveals that not everyone is eligible to play. Oracle picks the companies that can participate—talk about stacking the deck. Next, Oracle measures performance according to its definition, not necessarily yours. As defined in the challenge, performance means "the throughput of your system, measured in total Web pages viewed per second." That definition sounds OK until you realize that Oracle gets to set the performance baseline that its solution will be measured against. Last, the following quote from the guarantee summarizes the challenge's punch line: "YOU WILL NEED TO PURCHASE THE PRODUCTS AND SERVICES RECOMMENDED BY ORACLE, AND UNDERTAKE YOUR BEST EFFORTS TO OPTIMIZE YOUR WEB SITE IN ACCORDANCE WITH OUR RECOMMENDATIONS." (The capitalization is Oracle's.) Although the challenge's wording makes this scenario sound like a simple software swap, don't be fooled. This is no apples-for-apples software swap. This little clause leaves the door wide open for a full-blown hardware exchange in which replacing your current system with a 64-CPU, $8-million Sun Starfire Enterprise server is fair game. And because Oracle has 90 days to complete this challenge, if the company somehow picks a server that is too small, the pocketbook's wide open for Oracle to try an even bigger server—all on your tab.

I guess Oracle isn't so confident after all. One look at the current Transaction Processing Performance Council (TPC) TPC-C scores will tell you that Oracle has good reason to be worried. The company has dropped to fifth in the TPC-C score battle, and both IBM's DB2 and Microsoft's SQL Server databases will likely up the ante. Oracle's latest challenge is like a diving competitor choosing the belly flop over the one-and-a-half gainer. The belly flop makes the biggest splash. But when the wake clears, the score just isn't there. If you hit a slow spot in your day or need a good laugh, you can find more information about the latest Oracle challenge at http://www.oracle.com/guarantee