Should Universities Pay For Oracle?

Here at Washington State University, there has been a lot of discussion lately at switching to a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. I say a new one, because in my opinion we already have one, it just happens to be 30+ years old, homegrown, and dependent on an ancient database and hardware platform. We desperately need a new system. The number of COBOL and Natural/Adabas programmers certainly isn’t rising. Not to mention the problems inherent in replacing our ancient IBM Mainframe if it were necessary.

A new ERP will allow us to host our data on commodity hardware, in a true relational database, with a more easily extendable interface (we’re trying to jump on the SOA bandwagon). Currently, there has been a lot of discussion of the Banner or Peoplesoft educational ERP products. Having used Banner before as a student, I wasn’t terribly excited about it. Now, as a software developer, I fear the products because they’re closed systems, who will only run on Oracle.

Why do I consider that a problem? Well, Oracle’s Licensing is complicated enough that it apparently requires a 61-page document describing the licensing terms. They also license based not only on the number of processors in a system, but also the number of processor cores. You have to license not only the database servers, but also the management software. Oh, and don’t even think of putting your Oracle instance on a virtual machine like VMWare, you’ve got the pay the underlying system licensing, not the virtual hardware licensing. And this doesn’t even touch the expense of the licensing individually, which can run upwards of a thousands dollars per processor per year for the Enterprise edition.

Certainly, Oracle is a good database. It wouldn’t have been around as long as it has been if it wasn’t. However, is it worth the cost? Personally, I’m not wholly convinced, but I’m not a DBA.

Taking a step back to the ERP problem, I’ve been looking into a product called Kuali. Kuali is an Open Source ERP specifically targetting Education. It’s being worked on by a variety of Universities across the nation, including the University of California, Cornell University, among many others. There are a few problems with it so far, however. First, the Student module isn’t release yet, the financial module doesn’t support Accounts Recievable or Accounts Payable yet, among other things. At this time, it’s just not a fit replacement for our existing system.

However, the pace of development is fairly fast, we have developers on staff who could be tasked with extending Kuali, and the amount of money we could save by not licensing Banner or Peoplesoft (or something similar) is significant. If we wanted commercial support, there are companies that offer it. Is it ready to replace our systems today, no. But it could probably be brought online and begin us down the necessary path to correct the issues we need to correct, and we could likely end up with a fairly stock system, potentially more so than with the alternatives because this system is being designed from the ground up by educational institutions.

Back to the database issue, Kuali does support Oracle, but it also offers MySQL as an alternative. Now, for people who think MySQL doesn’t scale, MySQL backs many of the largest websites on the planet. It’s not my favorite Open Source Database, that honor falls to PostgreSQL, but it’s well known, it’s fast, and it’s proven. And it doesn’t cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year in licensing fees.

We’re in an interesting time right now. The economy is in shambles and Universities nationwide are getting their budgets cut. Does it really make sense to apply tens of thousands (if not much more) of dollars per year on support contracts, when cheaper alternatives are available? Does it really make sense to spend all that money on a product you’re going to have to customize anyway, instead of paying far less for a system which was likely designed with more customization in mind? Does it make sense to pay Oracle’s licensing fees when MySQL is already well proven in the database industry?

I don’t think so. I’m investigating Kuali, and I think I’ll likely start pushing it a bit. If nothing else, I’d really like to see my university get more behind the principles of Open Source Development, and given that we could likely save hundreds of thousands (if not millions) in the process, I think it behooves us to try.