Wednesday, 24 January 2007

E-Business Suite Q&A with Steven Chan

In an ongoing series of articles, Chris Muir chats to Oracle blogger Steven Chan, Director of the Oracle Applications Technology Group. Steven's blog is one of the few Oracle Applications blogs and a strong source of the technology directions for Oracle's E-Business Suite. Beyond his blog Steven is responsible for integrating components such as Oracle Application Server into the Oracle E-Business Suite Release 11i technology stack. In addition to working with new technology integrations, Steven manages technology adoption programs with selected E-Business Suite customers.

Q) What is your principal role at Oracle?

A) My primary responsibility managing Early Adopter Programs for selected Oracle E-Business Suite technology stack components and advanced configurations. These programs allow selected customers to work with certain configurations or software before they’re released to the general customer community.

For example, I recently ran an Early Adopter Program for integrating Oracle Application Server 10g with the Oracle E-Business Suite. This was a massive 20-month program involving over 260 registered customers worldwide, five interim releases, and Oracle Support and Consulting staff in all geographic regions.

Q) Can you describe your average working day?

A) I’m part of various virtual development teams assembled to build, test and deploy different configurations internally, write or review documentation and training materials, and handle issues reported by anyone who uses it.

Practically speaking, this means that my day consists of bouncing between multiple projects, handling bugs, escalating issues, and generally making a nuisance out of myself. It’s the perfect job for someone with a short attention span. I’m also spending a lot of time, both on the clock and after hours, on my new Oracle E-Business Suite Technology Stack blog.

Q) Your blog is one of the few Oracle Applications blogs. Why did you start blogging about Oracle Applications?

A) A major part of my job is communicating with customers, partners, and Oracle staff on a broad variety of Oracle E-Business Suite technology stack topics such as security, deployment architectures, and our current and future certifications. I do a lot of customer presentations and webcasts, and I also participate in conferences like Oracle OpenWorld and OAUG Collaborate when possible.

This results in a lot of email -- up to 600 emails on a bad day. In self-defence, I started writing a Frequently Asked Questions document about Release 11i technology stack topics (Metalink Note 186981.1). To my surprise, my incoming email volumes turned out to be inversely proportional to the investment in these FAQs: the more time I spent writing about on a particularly topic, the less email I had to answer.

The problem with FAQs, though, is that they’re a one-way medium. Despite our best efforts, I was left with this sense that there’s a lot more that we can do to communicate what’s technically feasible, what’s coming soon, and to learn how customers use our products.

When Oracle endorsed blogging, it was inevitable that I’d try it to see if we could use it to broadcast technical news and tips… and help me reduce my email volumes further. It seems to be working so far, and I’ve been gratified by the huge upswell in traffic and positive response from readers.

Q) How has the blog changed from your original expectations?

A) I originally thought that I’d use it primarily to discuss advanced and special features of the Oracle E-Business Suite’s technology stack components. Reader feedback quickly revealed that there’s a huge, unfulfilled demand for much more basic information.

Also, I’d planned on occasionally publishing interesting tidbits on future versions such as Release 12. I’ve been surprised at the popularity of this topic. As of now, the screenshots of our new Release 12 user interface are far-and-above the most popular topics on the blog.

As one of the first Apps bloggers, I’d expected that this might be a lonely road. The sudden rush of popularity has prompted interest from my colleagues, so I’ve been lucky to convince a growing group of guest editors to contribute some excellent articles. Even at this early stage, we now have some fascinating pieces written by heavy hitters in Support and our own Technology Integration group, and I’m optimistic that I’ll pick up more editors along the way.

Q) How did you first get involved in Oracle Applications?

A) Through the back door during the dotcom boom; I’m not sure I’d get an interview today with the skills I had back then. I originally joined Oracle’s Consumer Packaged Goods group in 1998. When Oracle’s directions changed for that product, I was reorganised into the core group responsible for Release 11i’s Business Intelligence core infrastructure. Following that, I joined the Applications Technology Group, the core department responsible for the Oracle E-Business Suite technology stack, where I’ve been happily ensconced since. I consider this my dream job.

Q) Within the labour market there does appear to be a clear divide between Oracle professionals savvy with Oracle Applications, those who have little experience, and those who prefer to keep it at arms reach. Any comment from your own experience?

A) That seems accurate. The learning curve to become an Apps system administrator can be steep. Not only do you need to have Oracle DBA skills, you also need to understand the Oracle E-Business Suite, too. The amount of material can be sprawling and intimidating to a newcomer.

I’m very pleased to see that we’re now offering a new Oracle certification for Oracle E-Business Suite 11i Applications Technology Certified Professional Administrators. I think this will go a long way to making this area more accessible. In the meantime, Apps DBAs can enjoy a deserved premium for their hard-won skills in the marketplace.

Q) You've previously had responsibility for running Early Adopter Programs (EAP) in Oracle, specifically the integration of E-Business Suite (EBS) v11 with Oracle Application Server (OAS) 10g. How does an Early Adopter Program vary for E-Business than from other Oracle products?

A) There are some procedural differences in how we distribute and support Early Adopter Program software but our goals are the same, overall: to validate the field readiness of certified configurations with a range of selected customer environments. Specifically, we look carefully at Early Adopter Program participant feedback on our documentation, the ease of installation and configuration, and how well the software meets their needs.

Q) How do customers participate in these programs, and what level of support would an Early Adopter Program E-Business Suite customer expect?

A) Up until now, customers with specific requirements had to hunt down our Early Adopter Programs via Oracle Support or other indirect Oracle channels.

For example, we’re currently running an Early Adopter Program for replacing JInitiator with the native Sun Java plug-in on Windows desktops. Customers having problems with JInitiator are often informed by Oracle Support that an alternative solution is to register for this Early Adopter Program.

That Early Adopter Program is now profiled on our Oracle E-Business Suite Technology Stack blog. I hope to make it easier for Oracle E-Business Suite customers to find this kind of information centrally with this new option.

From a support perspective, Early Adopter Program customers can generally use these configurations in production environments, but this varies on a product-by-product basis.

Q) E-Business Suite v12, a major version with a range of modules, must take a huge amount of development effort from requirements gathering through to the shrink wrapping. Could you describe the effort required by the Oracle E-Business Suite team to bring all of this together?

A) A major release like this takes a coordinated effort across all Oracle divisions, including Development, Support, Consulting, Education, Marketing, and even our internal Applications IT group, which runs Oracle’s own Global Single Instance. They’re often the first users of our new releases.

In terms of scale, these releases involve a myriad of staff, including developers, product managers, QA engineers, documentation writers, support engineers, and our tireless infrastructure teams who update the various development and demonstration environments with every new code drop.

Q) Within E-Business Suite v12 what do you think will be the E-Business Suite killer feature?

A) I’m not really qualified to comment on the functional aspects so I’ll restrict my comments to the technology side. I think that the inclusion of the Oracle 10gR2 Database and Oracle Application Server 10g in Release 12’s technology stack are major steps forward. On top of that, R12 will feature our new Project Swan user interface, the latest Oracle XML Publisher release, and optional integration capabilities with externally-installed Oracle Fusion Middleware products like Oracle Identity Management, Oracle BPEL Process Manager and Oracle Business Activity Monitoring. This adds up to a pretty exciting release from a technology perspective.

Q) The E-Business Suite is a prime user of the Oracle RDBMS and OAS. The perception is E-Business Suite lags in utilising the latest RDBS and OAS features. Any comment?

A) Some new database releases have historically taken a little longer than we’d like to certify with the Oracle E-Business Suite. This is partly due to our desire to deploy these releases in production at Oracle prior to making them generally available. There are certain windows where upgrading Oracle’s own Global Single Instance is avoided – for example, around quarterly or annual earnings periods.

That said, we’re making progress at reducing the lag between the release of a new database version and its subsequent certification with the Oracle E-Business Suite, and we’re continually looking at ways to tighten the process further.

Likewise, we’re working on improving the Application Server release process, particularly in the area of including Oracle E-Business Suite integration tests as part of the exit criteria for the QA phases. We’ve been doing this for years for products like Oracle Discoverer, and we’re now broadening this out to other components in the Oracle Application Server product family.

Q) As one of the largest Oracle RDBMS and OAS users, the E-Business Suite development team must request significant features in the upcoming Oracle core products. What's your experience of how this relationship works between the different product teams and the outcome for the E-Business Suite?

Oracle is committed to success in the ERP industry, and we’re seeing an unprecedented focus on supporting Applications through advances in Middleware and Database technologies.

Q) Oracle has recently made a series of acquisitions in the Identity Management space. E-Business Suite v11 and OAS 10g integration allows v11 users to authenticate against the OID and presumably future releases will see more user information held in OID rather than v11. What will be the impact of the new security packages in future release of E-Business Suite?

A) The biggest impact lies in the change in our overall attitude towards integration and coexistence with third-party products. Previously, we considered the Oracle E-Business Suite to be a stand-alone product with its own user management system.

Today, our designs explicitly consider customer requirements for third-party integration, all brokered through the abstraction and integration capabilities of Oracle Identity Management components packaged as part of Oracle Fusion Middleware and Oracle Application Server. We no longer view the Oracle E-Business Suite as an isolated application, but rather as one part of your overall IT environment. This represents an enormous sea change in attitudes.

Q) Veteran applications developers know that customisation to E-Business Suite and other ERP solutions to suit customer business processes results in an upgrade headache as new versions of the software are released. Some developers now recommend when buying such software solutions, the business should change to match the vendor's package, not the other way around, a case of standards versus flexibility. Can you comment on how E-Business Suite is addressing this issue? Do you have any recommendations from your own experience on how customers should tackle this?

A) This is a classic conundrum, one that I’d be hard-pressed to address effectively within the limited scope of this interview. We draw a distinction between configuration, personalization, and extensibility. Configuration options allow you to define things like flexfields, personalisation options allow you to change the user interface look-and-feel and screen layouts declaratively, and our extensibility options allow you to add new functional flows or override existing business logic.

If you follow our published standards for these three areas, upgrades are generally less painful. But as with all generalisations of this type, your mileage may vary.

If your readers are looking for more information about this rich area, I’d recommend reading this.

Q) What area do you believe provides the biggest frustration to E-Business Suite users and how are Oracle addressing this?

From a technology stack perspective, I think we have two major challenges. Our biggest challenge is reducing the complexity and cost of managing the entire implementation, management, maintenance, and upgrade cycle. We’ve made significant progress in building out the Oracle Enterprise Manager and Oracle Applications Manager capabilities for Release 11i, and I think you’ll be pleased with new features coming in Release 12.

Our second major challenge is keeping up with the ever-evolving set of architectural requirements that you’re faced with when implementing the Oracle E-Business Suite in the field. For example, only a handful of customers were concerned about SSL, DMZs, and Single Sign-On back when their Oracle E-Business Suite users were restricted to employees behind corporate firewall. Today, nearly all customers want to expose some aspect of the Oracle E-Business Suite externally, which triggers these requirements and others for things like reverse proxy servers, load-balancers, and federated security.

It’s a challenge to learn about your new requirements, which is why we encourage you to send us your feedback through the official OAUG channels.

Q) With the new exposure to the other ERP solutions acquired by Oracle, has this allowed the E-Business Suite team to investigate new ideas in the other products and introduce them to E-Business Suite? Any particular features you see as a priority?

A) If it were possible to graph the number of new concepts and approaches we’re working with, it would look like a step function with every new acquisition. The design process for Oracle Fusion Applications is underway now and everyone’s bringing together the best ideas from all of our acquired ERP solutions. It’s hard to single any one thing out as a priority, but the buzz of excitement around the new directions for Oracle Fusion is electrifying.

Q) There has been a large amount of hysteria about the Oracle Fusion marketing label and its impact on existing customer bases in the PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, Siebel and Oracle E-Business Suite arenas. What comments would you like to make from an E-Business Suite perspective?

A) We’ve tried to allay the fears of our customers by reassuring them that they’re not being placed on a forced march to upgrade to any release before they’re ready for it. We know you’ve invested heavily in your current implementations, so we’re giving you the responsibility for setting the pace of your deployment or migration schedule.

This is the goal of our Applications Unlimited program here. If anyone is even remotely concerned about being forced to upgrade or switch, they should contact their local Oracle account team for a discussion about how Applications Unlimited protects their investments.

Q) The United States Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act was created to ensure business has certain controls in place to limit and detect fraud. Its influence has been felt world wide including Australian businesses wanting to trade with the USA. How can E-Business Suite assist in helping customers meet the challenges of SOX?

A) Indeed, the ripples of this legislation have been felt worldwide. The Oracle E-Business Suite has a large number of products and features that can be used to build a compliance system. There’s an extensive body of literature covering this here.

Q) SOA and BPEL are making major inroads into the ERP space. What future support will there be for BPEL, in particular Oracle's BPEL Process Manager in the E-Business Suite?

A) Release 11i can be used today with Oracle BPEL Process Manager and Oracle Business Activity Monitoring to support service oriented architecture designs. In addition, we offer a hosted Integration Repository here.

You’ll continue to be able to use Oracle Fusion Middleware, Oracle BPEL Process Manager and Oracle Business Activity Monitoring with Release 12, and we’re planning to deliver the Integration Repository as part of the R12 Rapid Install. You should look out new web services and other integration capabilities coming in Release 12.

Q) With E-Business Suite v12 behind you, what features do you see in the next release? Any comments to users on how they can help influence this functionality?

A) There are a myriad ways of getting in touch with us, so you might be surprised at how little feedback we actually receive. We have over 30,000 Applications customers today, but strangely, we only hear from a relatively small fraction of you. Make yourself heard! Work with your local OAUG chapter on documenting your requirements and use-cases. If you can, come to Oracle OpenWorld and speak with us directly. Make your Oracle account team earn their licence revenues by reviewing your enhancement requests with them. Drop by our new blogs and post some comments. Although there are few certainties in life, it’s almost guaranteed that we won’t be able to respond to your concerns unless you tell us about them… so speak up!

(This article is a reprint of the article I published in the quarterly AUSOUG magazine Autumn 06 edition. I'd like to extend my thanks to Steven Chan for agreeing to the interview, and Stuart Smith and Craig Metters at Santos for their kind assistance and input on this Q&A article)

1 comment:

Umesh Kakkad said...

Great interview. Tonnes of insights for any one interested in Oracle Applications technology components. As the post rightly points out that there is limited resources around the what and how Oracle EBS is using various technology pices like Data Base, Jdeveloer, Oracle Application server etc.

Also it was good to know from Steven on the striking technology features of R12.

- Umesh