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SAN FRANCISCO—You spend $19 a month to get instantaneous information on Iraq or on the U.S. presidential elections through an AOL dialup. That’s cool, but what about getting consistent information on your business, after spending millions on business systems? That’s what Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison asked during his keynote here Wednesday at the Oracle OpenWorld conference.

Ellison proceeded to illustrate Oracle’s latest technology vision, which incorporates a series of data hubs that will serve as shortcuts to having all data stored centrally in one, huge, centralized database.

“How much did you sell yesterday?” Ellison asked. “How much was in inventory? If it wasn’t in inventory, how much will it cost to build? What did I spend yesterday? Who is my best supplier of PCs? Who’s got the lowest cost? Who can deliver most quickly? Who has the most returns? Are they configured properly, or do I have to send it back?”

That information, Ellison contends, has been unavailable, as data has existed scattered in bits and pieces throughout an enterprise, spread through hundreds of databases.

“The ideal situation for any business would be to get all corporate data into a single database,” Ellison said. “If you could keep all your data in one place, you would have consistent, up-to-date information about your business at your fingertips. Everyone would know where to go to get the information they’d need to make good decisions.”

That vision of consolidation on Oracle databases is nothing new, but Oracle, like other technology vendors, has focused in recent years on building applications to automate business processes. The current state of affairs is that processes have been automated along with their applications, such as those from PeopleSoft Inc. or Lawson Software Inc. or any of a score of enterprise applications. The information, though, has not been delivered to people who need it to do their jobs, Ellison said.

This is not a BI (business intelligence) problem, Ellison said. The problem is that underlying data is chopped into little bits and pieces and stored in databases all around the world. BI tools won’t be truly useful until all of that information is brought together, he said.

Oracle, of Redwood Shores, Calif., has long preached the idea of consolidation—it was the idea behind Oracle e-Business Suite.

All you have to do, Ellison said, is convert from 6,000 current databases or so and get to one, consolidated database. Oracle itself just completed that process—one that took five years as the huge company slimmed down from thousands of systems to one, global system.

From Satan’s minions hawking rival application servers on up to Oracle’s hot 10g message, Oracle OpenWorld showgoers reported a simmering stew of topics catching their attention. Click here to read more.

It took five years for Oracle, which is itself an IT company and which faced problems including inconsistent data formats and the culture shock of managers losing their identity as data warehouse wranglers. How long, then, will such a project take for other, non-IT businesses?

That’s where data hubs come in, Ellison said.

“There must be another way” other than the overwhelming task of consolidating hundreds of databases, Ellison said. The solution, he said, is to move a copy of data to a central data hub, while leaving existing systems where they are as they continue to provide services to application users.

Next Page: Still sound scary?

Still sound scary? Ellison pointed to the global financial data hub, which has allowed banking systems to store their data in one huge, virtual database in order to rapidly check credit and process credit cards. Such a hub, the first “modern information-age application,” dramatically changed the worldwide economy, Ellison said.

“This isn’t a single database inside a company,” he said. “This is a single database for the planet Earth. The single, global database that keeps track of all the people who issue credit and every credit-worthy individual on the planet Earth.

“It has to be one database. It has to be in one place. If you put down a rectangular piece of plastic in a watch store in Switzerland and buy a $5,000 watch, I need to know as the store manager whether to give you that watch, and I have to do it in a matter of seconds.”

In a similar way, Oracle’s Customer Data Hub will be the most important hub in a series that Oracle plans to roll out.

The only way to build such a system that scales and never breaks is to build it on top of a grid instead of a single mainframe computer, Ellison said, which is how the global credit hub works. Such a solution is a selling point for Oracle’s 10g grid architecture, which promises cheaper, faster performance through the tying together of many low-cost servers, as opposed to relying on a small number of large mainframes.

“Grids are dramatically faster than mainframes,” Ellison said. “Mainframes are no longer the gold standard of performance. … You’re buying processors … for a big mainframe, they’re at least $50,000 per processor, as opposed to $2,500 per processor for commodity servers.”

What’s the difference between real-time operational data stores and the data hub concept Oracle has come up with? The parameters could be instantaneous or a matter of seconds or minutes, Ellison said, depending on customer-set parameters. “But contrast that to a warehouse, which might be out of date by a month or more,” Ellison said.

Read more here about how data hubs will link information from multiple applications.

During a news conference following his keynote, Ellison said Oracle will sell the data hub concept based on the premise that it’s faster, cheaper and more reliable computing.

He compared Oracle’s version of grid and data hubs with IBM’s On-Demand initiative, saying IBM has no ability to plug in additional servers as the need for computing resources escalates.

“IBM’s On-Demand offering is, ‘We’ll give you a mainframe computer,’” he said. “They put a meter on the computer. If you use 12 [CPUs], you pay for 12 [CPUs]. It’s a really a contract. They have no ability to plug in additional stuff.”

Ellison said that over the five years that Oracle itself has built a central database, the company has seen its profit margin grow to 40 percent—a doubling over the time frame.

“I watched friends running businesses that are still decentralized,” he said. “That is so stunningly inefficient, it prevents you from being competitive.”

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