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Wisconsin CIO gets slammed on Oracle email debacle

The state of Wisconsin walked away from a $2.6 million email integration project using Oracle Collaboration Suite. What went wrong? Some say the CIO.

MADISON, Wis. -- After spending $2.1 million on Oracle Collaboration Suite (OCS) software to integrate the state's 44,000 email boxes, Wisconsin CIO Matt Miszewski told state workers Feb. 24 he was scrapping the project.

The goal was to consolidate the state's 222 servers to 19. But a three-month trial run of the OCS system on 1,200 mailboxes in Wisconsin Governor's Jim Doyle's administration unveiled serious problems, including emails that vanished from "sent" folders, meeting invitations that never showed up in Outlook calendars, and distribution lists that failed to distribute.

The state was going back to Microsoft.

The email consolidation project had been three years in the making, from the initial brainstorming in 2003 and selection of Oracle in 2004 to the test launch of OCS in November. Judging from the chatter at the Fusion2006 conference last week and on the blogosphere, where local Wisconsin critics have been out in force, the choice of Oracle and the state's bid process were being second-guessed well before the installation was scrapped. Why would the state go with a product that had a tiny percentage of the marketplace (4% by some accounts) and no track record on big enterprise systems?

"To be honest it took some convincing of me once the committee [comprising representatives from many state agencies] came back and said their recommendation was to go with Oracle Collaboration Suite," Miszewski said in a phone interview this week. "But after looking at it, it seemed it had a solid enough reputation and you really couldn't ignore the multimillion dollars in savings."

Price vs politics

Indeed, Oracle was the clear winner on price. Its $2.6 million bid was nearly a fifth the cost of a competing $12.3 million bid from Microsoft. Oracle projected $1 million in savings for the state once the integration was complete. Given Wisconsin was facing a $3.2 billion budget deficit and IT is under mandate to cut costs, the decision seemed "fairly obvious," Miszewski said. Asked how the bids could be so far apart, Miszewski chalked it up to the differing business models followed by Oracle and Microsoft.

"In Microsoft's email situation, you have licensing costs not just for the Exchange servers and operating systems, but then additional costs for the client-access licenses for every user of the system. That adds up to a larger total ownership cost," Miszewski said.

It seemed it had a solid enough reputation and you really couldn't ignore the multimillion dollars in savings.

Matt Miszewski, CIO, state of Wisconsin

Miszewski and his staff have renewed negotiations with Microsoft and gone back to Oracle to recoup some of its costs. He says he is confident Microsoft will ultimately bring a bid on par with Oracle's, and that the state will be able to reduce the number of servers to -- if not the 19 promised by Oracle -- then fewer than 40. Oracle could not be reached for comment.

Jim Murphy, a research director at AMR Research Inc. in Boston who covers Oracle Collaboration Suite, said political pressure from vendors and advocates of open systems cannot be ruled out as a factor in the state's choice of Oracle in this field, rather than Microsoft.

"Especially in government, I'm seeing a lot of positioning around Microsoft by vendors like Oracle and Sun and IBM, arguing that a government entity shouldn't be supporting this monopoly and can't afford to buy proprietary format," Murphy said.

In addition, because Microsoft systems are distributed, it's hard to manage the stuff from a centralized point, a sticking point for a government that needs to manage its documents carefully, Murphy said.

Still, there is no question that Oracle hasn't proven to scale for an organization with 44,000 mailboxes, Murphy said. "[With] 44,000 people managing documents, workflow processes with maybe a lot of bridge content, and if they are starting to deploy things like VOIP, [that] would pose complications."

In Massachusetts, the state's decision to move to an open document format for storing electronic documents turned into a fight, with open document advocates and Microsoft supporters each accusing the other of playing dirty politics. Peter Quinn, the CIO caught in the crossfire, left this post after facing legislative opposition and personal attacks.

Asked if the political pressure to use a less proprietary solution factored into his decision to chose Oracle, Miszewski, who happens to be good friends with former Massachusetts CIO Quinn, said that CIOs in both private and public sectors need to be wary of "vendor lock-in."

"Microsoft is just the most current example. But sometimes it is healthy for a CIO to send a very strong message that their infrastructure is resilient enough to make choices that are not proprietary," Miszewski said.

Potshots at top spots?

The Oracle project has been a hot topic at Wisconsin Technology Network Media, an online technology news site where readers post comments on stories. Amid the predictable, mostly anonymous comments about government waste and numerous potshots at Miszewski is an entry posted by Pete Oemichen, a recently retired state IT employee. Oemichen includes an excerpt of a letter he wrote to a state representative after attending an administrator training session on the OCS system.

"I was astounded to see a system that is at least 4-5 years behind current technology. Attendees were glancing at each other and shaking their heads. This system will be a couple of giant steps backward for every agency in the state whether they are using Novell Groupwise or Microsoft Exchange," Oemichen wrote. "I bluntly asked how anyone could make the decision to put so much dependency on something so backward (remember I'm retiring so I don't care). The response was -- "it was cheap"! (That fact is supported by many references on the web about Oracle giving it away to try and establish market share and play with the big boys in the email space.) …The product is so flawed and will be so expensive to manage at the desktop that it's hard to comprehend the support nightmare looming on the horizon for all the IT staff in the agencies upon whom that task will fall."

So are people asking for Miszewski's head?

"There's always people calling for my head," said Miszewski, whose position as CIO is appointed. But he insists that the project is a model for how such deployments should be executed, step by step, with a trail run to prove it. His advice for CIOs?

"It's important to understand that when CIOs face tough budget crises, you've got to have the guts to move forward with what seem to be controversial decisions," he said. "And if a project doesn't seem to be going right and it has nothing to do with staff input or commitment but some deficiencies in the product itself, never be afraid to review those decisions at intervals so you can correct if you need to correct."

Oracle is hardly out in the cold in Wisconsin.

The state continues to rely on Oracle for its databases. The company was awarded a contract last May worth $29 million over six years to roll 47 different Oracle database contracts throughout state government into one, a move that reduced the state's costs by 45% in the first year. And yesterday Miszewski announced that the state would enter negotiations on a $9 million bid from PeopleSoft for another project. "Oracle has a lot of strengths, but in our experience, it was not with email."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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