Oracle CEO Larry Ellison issued another $1 million challenge this fall, guaranteeing that companies that upgrade their SQL Server- or IBM DB2-based production Web sites to Oracle's products will see performance at least three times that of the pre-upgrade systems. The guarantee, which comes with the type of fine print usually reserved for tax-related documents, requires the use of the Oracle9i Application Server and Oracle8i database. Announced in a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, this challenge is accompanied by even more fanfare than Ellison's original 1998 $1 million challenge, which was hotly debated by a team from Microsoft that claimed to meet the requirements. This time, Oracle has left fewer loopholes.

To collect the $1 million, customers must prove that switching to Oracle's products failed to result in a performance gain of at least 300 percent. Specifically, Oracle guarantees that the affected Web site will support no less than three times the number of page views per second that it supported with SQL Server or DB2. Therefore, the site should deliver the same number of page views to the same number of viewers in one-third the time. If the upgraded site doesn't support this performance, Oracle promises to pay you $1 million.

But there's a catch: Aside from the lofty price tag of the Oracle software and the resulting conversion, which you as a new customer need to pay for up front, Oracle reserves the right to tune your Web site within 90 days. If the tuning that Oracle performs raises the site's speed above the 300 percent mark, you must pay Oracle for the tuning work. So the up-front costs of the upgrade will probably prevent most comers from even attempting to collect.

Ellison's first $1 million challenge came in November 1998, when he boasted that the company's then-new Oracle8i database was at least 100 times faster than SQL Server 7.0, which Microsoft was rolling out at the time. The benchmark Ellison used to obtain this figure was a bit skewed; the score was obtained on an $8 million 64-bit Sun Microsystems system with more than 1TB of data. But Microsoft's SQL Server team rose to the challenge and claimed to have proven Ellison wrong within a few months. Oracle withdrew the challenge and disqualified Microsoft's entry on a technicality.

Oracle's plans for the future extend beyond this challenge and the increasing distance between Oracle's and Microsoft's products on the TPC-C benchmarks. The company announced this fall that it is attempting to become the "Microsoft of the enterprise space" by integrating more than 75 products into 2 core products, AppCenter9i and Oracle8i. Oracle, which has criticized Microsoft for integration in the past, defended the move. "We've been a great believer in open standards," said Larry Ellison. "But the market wants integrated software from one vendor." Ellison says that having fewer product configurations is easier on users.