Expanding to Meet DemandsBy David A. Kelly
Small and medium businesses grow up with Oracle.
Small business doesn't mean small requirements. Take the case of fast-growing Bebo.com, the United Kingdom and Ireland's most popular social networking site.
"Our scalability challenge is managing the huge growth in our page views," says Michael Birch, Bebo's cofounder, CEO, and CIO. "We already have 27 million subscribers and turn about 4 billion page views a month. 25 percent [monthly] growth on top of that is significant."
Bebo started out with Oracle Database 10g Standard Edition One, but has since scaled up to Enterprise Edition so it could spread the load across additional processors. "Oracle Database 10g allows us to scale trouble-free, I'm pleased to say," says Birch. "We just built a standby database and then flipped our systems over."
Bebo's experience is a good example of the types of pressures facing today's small and medium businesses (SMBs)—business demand for fast performance, high availability, data security, and scalability in an IT environment where resources are tight. For companies who can meet these demands, the result is improved relationships with customers and partners, reduced risk, and an ability to adapt to changing market conditions.
"There are no global boundaries anymore, so even small and medium companies can compete with the big guys," says Donald Feinberg, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. "Because of that, SMBs need enterprise-quality software applications to compete and run their business. They need the same performance, reliability, and much of the same functionality that large companies need."
Enter Oracle. While Oracle built its reputation by serving the needs of enterprise customers, it has taken its core products and packaged them into solutions suited to SMBs. "Oracle makes it very easy to develop, deploy, and scale systems using Oracle Database and Oracle Fusion Middleware," says Willie Hardie, vice president of database marketing, Oracle. "Because Oracle offers a choice of solutions built on a common code base, SMBs get enterprise-class technology at a low entry cost, which can then scale inexpensively."
For Bebo, the choice of selecting Oracle Database 10g as its primary database had a lot to do with reliability. "We can't afford to be down, and we certainly can't afford to lose data," says Bebo's Birch. "That's why we selected Oracle."
For a social networking site such as Bebo, having a scalable and fast database to manage transactions and store user files is critical to growing the business. Every day Bebo's users upload more than 1.2 million photos, which need to be stored in five formats and managed by their Oracle database.
"We've been growing at 25 percent a month, and we're hoping to continue that," says Birch. "Without the right infrastructure, it gets increasingly difficult to cope with that rate of compound growth."
Although Oracle Database 10g Standard Edition One on a two-CPU server running SUSE Enterprise Linux met Bebo's initial startup needs, Birch realized that he needed to upgrade to handle the site's phenomenal growth. By upgrading to Enterprise Edition, Birch was able to take advantage of features such as partitioning, which helps manage the company's scalability requirements.
Another database feature that Birch finds particularly useful is Oracle's index-optimized table capability. "We found that it substantially reduces the amount of random I/Os that we do," he says. "It improves database performance and limits the additional investment we'd otherwise need to make in additional hardware."
Bebo's database has to be integrated with its Java applications, so Bebo uses Oracle's JDBC drivers and the connection pooling capabilities on its Web servers to integrate everything. "Interoperability with Oracle is very straightforward," Birch says.
Another important consideration that's been straightforward for Bebo has been finding skilled personnel. Beyond two internal administrators, Bebo occasionally uses a freelance consultant. Birch says: "It's definitely an advantage that Oracle is commonly used. It wasn't that hard for us to find skilled resources to help manage our growth."
High Availability and Security
For the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), located in Chicago, selecting Oracle Database 10g Standard Edition One wasn't just about performance or ease of use. It was also about agility.
"It's not just the breadth of the Oracle architecture that's great. It's our ability to adapt it as our business needs change," says Bryan Pawlak, director of the AOA's Development division within the department of Information Technology. "If we're to grow and double the amount of transactions through our database, we could just add a node to our grid to increase capacity. Oracle gives us the capability to expand our environment as we grow—it's a great concept."
The AOA is a medical association that represents more than 59,000 osteopathic physicians (DOs) in the United States. Osteopathic doctors, like medical doctors, can prescribe drugs, perform surgeries, and work in different medical specialties. The AOA's key functions include accrediting the osteopathic medical schools, postgraduate training programs, and board certification process for medical specialists, as well as tracking all the credentials of its 59,000 DOs throughout their careers. Therefore, in addition to meeting the basic needs of a large membership organization, the AOA needs to ensure data security and comply with all HIPAA privacy standards and different data integrity standards of the organizations it works with.
"We could have chosen Microsoft SQL Server, but we selected Oracle for our database back end because we wanted its robust features and its high-availability model," says Mike Zarski, the AOA's director of the department of Information Technology. "The stability of Oracle was a real winner for us in terms of choosing the platform. Also, the security features that are available in the Oracle environment really met our needs across the board. The fact that it was available on Linux is also a huge factor for us."
Pawlak agrees. "We love Oracle on Linux," he says. "We've seen great stability, security, and performance on the platform."
The AOA went live with Oracle Database Standard Edition One as a back end for its portal infrastructure in June 2005. More than 36,000 members have access to the portal, with more than 20,000 regular daily users. "We're just scratching the surface on what we could use different parts of the Oracle architecture for; we're looking to expand our production use of more Oracle technologies," says Pawlak.
The AOA is in the process of upgrading to Oracle Database 10g Standard Edition with Oracle Real Application Clusters (Oracle RAC). "We're expanding our use of the Oracle database by implementing a grid clustering environment," Pawlak says. "Going to grid made sense for us from many perspectives—from the high-availability and security perspective, it's a huge win for us. We'll also be able to add on services to the grid as we go along—for example, the Oracle Internet Directory component—when we need it."
Combined Solution Benefits
Smaller companies sometimes can take advantage of new technologies to make a big difference in their efficiency and ultimately their bottom line. Take Property Condition Assessments (PCA), based in Pasadena, California. PCA is a national architectural and engineering firm that performs due-diligence reports for buyers, investors, and building owners. The company's assessment solution provides flexibility now—and can be upgraded in the future as its business needs grow.
Here's how it works: PCA employees evaluate buildings and visit properties across the country. After they inspect a property, they remotely enter data into an XML form, which PCA then turns into a readable report for property owners. To coordinate all this data, PCA uses Oracle Application Server Standard Edition One to support its expanding application requirements and business needs and Oracle XML Publisher to create reports for internal and external use.
"We chose Oracle because of its architectural design and its features," says Thomas Clark, PCA's CIO. "Oracle Database gives us a critical advantage in its XML support, its stored procedure support, and its data structures."
Thanks to the integration of XML and a combination of database and middleware capabilities, PCA can quickly generate reports and executive summaries. PCA's reports can run in excess of 300 pages, examining all property conditions that can influence cost or purchase decisions. This data reviews structural analysis; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems; elevators; architectural overviews of how the space is used; and more.
"Our reports are complex. XML Publisher is great because it can output reports into multiple file formats with a click of the mouse," says Clark. "We typically output to PDF format, but we can also produce our work in [Microsoft] Word, Excel, or native XML files—whatever fits the needs of our customer."
Due to regulatory changes, PCA is also evolving into an online service provider for government clients. Starting in 2007 it will be rolling out a packaged version of its collection, analysis, and reporting tools for public-sector customers. This package can be customized for individual customer needs, creating a budgeting application for property assets for an entire portfolio of properties. PCA's Oracle infrastructure allows clients to meet their future property asset challenges with better information.
The company currently uses Oracle Database 10g Standard Edition One but even now is looking ahead. "In the future, we'll probably grow into a clustered environment," says Clark. "Today, it's not just about the database. It's really about interconnecting people with data, and the Oracle architecture helps us do that."
While PCA hasn't completed a full return on investment (ROI) on its database investments, it knows that this is a winning approach. On the middleware front, the company is already seeing improvements. "Last year when we implanted the XML Publisher-based reports throughout our company, we increased business by 40 percent while adding only one team member," Clark reports. "We've achieved a huge productivity gain through the use of these Oracle tools. It greatly benefits all our customers as well."
For growing companies like PCA, saving money and helping customers are essential to good business. But PCA's Clark has found something else that's important for his company's future growth—creating a strong working relationship with Oracle.
"What's impressed me most, and what makes Oracle unique, is that they really work supportively with a small company. They're not making a lot of money off us. But, they've made a very loyal customer out of me," says Clark. "Ultimately it's the relationship that's important, not just the software. We look to Oracle as a partner, someone that will work with PCA to grow our business."
David A. Kelly (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a business, technology, and travel writer who lives in West Newton, Massachusetts.