Build Your Skills: Oracle Collaboration Suite database middleware

Make interoffice collaboration possible with Oracle middleware suite

Oracle Corporation is hoping that the third time will be a charm for its latest try at an office communications platform with the Oracle Collaboration Suite (OCS). Two earlier products—Oracle InterOffice and Oracle Office Server—weren’t widely adopted. This time, however, both the underlying Oracle database and the Application Server middleware are more mature, and its main competitor's customers are facing expensive version upgrades.

Sara Radicati, president and CEO of The Radicati Group, spoke to press and analysts at the November 2002 OracleWorld Conference in San Francisco. She identified three key pressures that IT departments are feeling right now:
  • A slow economy is making containment of infrastructure costs imperative.
  • Globalization is forcing companies to implement advanced messaging capabilities to stay competitive.
  • IT must support an increasingly mobile set of users.

Oracle believes OCS—first released in July with a second version out last November—can meet these apparently conflicting objectives and take market share from Microsoft Exchange. In addition to providing competitive advantages with its new product, Oracle is also offering three options for deploying the product.

In the short term, Oracle hopes to benefit from the perceived high cost of upgrading Microsoft Exchange from version 5.5 to version 2000. Because Exchange 2000 requires Microsoft Active Directory to operate, organizations that want to upgrade are facing two migrations instead of one. By presenting an attractively priced alternative at just this time, it hopes to woo Exchange customers from Microsoft. In the long run, OCS is more than just e-mail, though. It's a platform for unifying messaging into a single data store—the Oracle 9i database.

Potential cost savings
Oracle cites four areas of cost savings to be realized by switching to its new collaboration suite.

Fewer servers are required with a centralized approach. A redundant, fault-tolerant installation would typically require two Exchange Servers in each site. Oracle took its own advice and reduced 97 servers to a single three-node Real Application Cluster, and 60 mailkeepers to only 13.

As an all-in-one suite, OCS includes functionality that other systems obtain from separately priced add-ons, such as voice mail and fax support.

Fewer servers mean fewer server administrators, fewer backups to be done, and fewer places to clean up if a virus does get into the system.

The cost to convert from Exchange 5.5 to OCS can be considerably less than the upgrade to Exchange 2000, says a report from Ferris Research. Exchange migrations can run as high as $100 per mailbox for corporations larger than 1,000 users; Oracle's consulting group is quoting a price as low as $29 per mailbox.

The technical structure
OCS is a three-tier client/server application suite. Diverse clients on the front end communicate with the Oracle 9i Application Server in the middle tier, and all messages (including voice mail and inbound faxes) are stored in a single instance of the Oracle 9i database.

Oracle's approach is to store everything—mailboxes, e-mail, attachments, even voice mail and faxes—in one relational database instead of separate data stores on multiple servers. This approach allows the message base to grow to many terabytes and to take advantage of parallel processing features built into the database engine. The approach also allows the entire enterprisewide message base to be easily searched for relevant content.

In the middle tier are services based on several Oracle products. The central piece is Oracle 9i Application Server (9iAS), with Apache Web server as its heart. Oracle Internet Directory, an LDAP-compliant directory service used to store lists of users, and Oracle Files, used to store message attachments, are also in the middle layer. UltraSearch, based on OracleText, indexes content and stores the index in the database.

Users can connect with their all-in-one inboxes using five clients.

Desktop client: Outlook Connector
OCS uses an Outlook Connector to translate Microsoft-specific protocols such as MAPI to Internet standard protocols, like IMAP4 (e-mail) and CAP (calendaring). This shortens the learning curve in those organizations that have already spent significant time training people to use Outlook. Messages retrieved via one channel are marked as being read, even when the user logs in via a different channel.

Thin client: Web browser
OCS includes Web mail functionality similar to Outlook Web Access, to enable users to retrieve their inbox contents from any Web browser. Using the browser-based client simplifies the administration of user desktops and will be the normal client in organizations not already trained on Outlook.

Wireless client: PDA/phone
Support for both Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) and iMode phones enables users to check their mail, voice mail, and calendar items. Alerts can also be pushed out to users via Short Message Service (SMS) text messages. The wireless features are based on XML and J2EE so customer-specific applications can be built on top of them.

Voice client: Telephone
Users can retrieve messages using a touch-tone (DTMF) telephone. Message headers will be read to the user; voice messages are stored as .wav files, which can be played back on the phone. The voice mail features comply with Enterprise Computer Telephony Forum (ECTF) standards, certified at the telephone switch level.

Fax client: RightFax
Users can send and receive faxes through the system.

New in Release 2 is the iMeeting Client, which enables Web conferences (both live and recorded playback), instant messaging, and cobrowsing (in which one user's browser changes pages automatically to match another's).

Deployment options
Oracle is offering three ways to deploy OCS. All of them require licensing of the suite at $60 per mailbox for a perpetual license. Some options have additional monthly fees.

One option allows customers to license the software and run it on their own servers at no additional cost per month. The customer is responsible for all maintenance and administration in this case.

The @Oracle option is an outsourced implementation. The suite is hosted on Oracle-owned hardware at an Oracle data center. Oracle staff does all the maintenance, upgrades, and administration. The additional cost for this option is $8 per month per mailbox for e-mail and files only, or $10 per month per mailbox for the full suite.

The @Customer option is a hybrid. The suite is hosted on customer-owned hardware, either at the customer's own site or at a third-party colocation facility. The customer administers the hardware and operating system; Oracle DBAs manage the Oracle software remotely. The cost for @Customer hosting is $6 per month per mailbox for e-mail and files only, and $8 per month for the full suite.

Of these options, the @Customer approach may be the most useful to a wide variety of companies: They can retain physical control of their information assets while relieving themselves of the burden of ongoing maintenance and administration. Oracle is well positioned to offer this service, because it has been offering remote database administration services for several years.

The bottom line
OCS is being positioned as a lower total cost of ownership replacement for Exchange 5.5. Those companies that have already migrated to Exchange 2000 will not want to replace it with OCS. However, companies that are already strong Oracle customers with in-house DBA expertise, or who favor the centralized database architecture over a distributed solution, may find OCS a good choice.

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