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Oracle buys Sun: When strategic vendors go bye-bye

This decade has seen a lot of consolidation among both software and hardware vendors. Sun bought StorageTek, Sun bought MySQL. Oracle bought Sun, Oracle bought BEA (one of many midsized middleware companies to be acquired). EMC bought VMware and about 40 other software companies. Symantec bought Veritas. Microsoft bought Great Plains. The list goes on, and that poses some challenges for CIOs looking to ensure continuity and keep your architectures fed in this environment.

Consolidation is, of course, nothing new. Fifteen years ago, you might have been a DEC VAX/Alpha shop running RDBMS and Informix, with all sorts of now extinct middleware.

But today’s context is different. We’ve long left behind “Nobody ever got fired for buying from IBM” for a much more uncertain and free-wheeling sourcing scene. CIOs have gradually imposed order on the situation through standards committees. At some companies, standard means things like Java, XML and 10 Gb Ethernet. At other companies, it means Dell, Microsoft and Cisco. At most, I suspect, software and architecture standards are a mix of protocols, open standards and vendors.

During this period of the rise of standards committees, CIOs have also had to confront a different problem: the dreaded “too many vendors” dilemma. “One is too few, three are too many” is conventional wisdom these days. Nice for hardware, not always possible for software.

The Sun acquisition could bring hope or despair into many CIOs’ lives, depending on how it plays out. Java, Solaris, SPARC boxes — these are significant building blocks for many shops. Some CIOs may cheer the continuing expansion of Oracle into some more niches in the upper end of computing; others may cringe at the thought.

But how many CIOs, I wonder, are rethinking the whole concept of “strategic vendor” in light of this deal and the sense that more are to come as the tech industry deals with the down economy? How are you seeing this? Are you looking for comprehensive vendors that can supply it all because they’re safe or for specialized vendors that each dominate a category (think EMC)? Or are you looking to commit to standards that are widely implemented by many vendors and to buy implementations that offer a good tradeoff between standard and “enhanced” features?

Another legitimate question posed by the dissolution of such a rock of many IT architectures as Sun is whether it’s time to apply new thinking to choosing strategic vendors — techniques like risk analysis or perhaps an even newer paradigm.

Legend has it that Wild Bill Hickok always sat in the back corner of the saloon so he could observe everyone who came and went. Good advice these days, although it didn’t quite work out for Wild Bill.

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