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HP's Autonomy: You never had a database

It's just sometimes amazing what bona fide journalists can swallow and republish. We've been guilty of being hornswoggled ourselves. But when the Wall Street Journal can't get it right, we feel a little better. Except now, when it's worse.

Let's explain. Hewlett-Packard, still the company which a migrating 3000 customer is likely to retain as a vendor, wants to buy a software company. It plans to spend $10.2 billion on Autonomy, which makes software to sort through the "unstructured data such as the contents of an email or video or a picture." What Autonomy likes best about its parent-to-be: HP never had its own legacy databases.

Lewis So, while you tend to the nature of your legacy IMAGE/SQL on your HP 3000, patiently making a data mart, doing a real-time data store, or just pushing a report through the likes of MBF-Reporter or byRequest, you're working with something Autonomy knows nothing about. Or maybe the WSJ Europe reporter just didn't check much. He didn't check with WSJ columnist Al Lewis (above), who called HP's past 12 months a march to suicide while he ripped the Autonomy buyout.

That doesn't even count HP Eloquence (now a Marxmeier product doing nicely with the "HP" gone and repeatedly upgraded), or Allbase/XL, or IMAGE for the HP 1000. Mike Lynch of Autonomy is certain that HP needs no flip-flop to sell software for data management.

Mr. Lynch said there were two things that persuaded him to sell to HP. The size and scale of HP, and the fact that unlike most other software vendors, it has no database business.

"If you are a traditional software player, the chances are that you have spent the last 10 years telling customers why they need to buy a bigger database. It’s very difficult to turn round and say 'Well, all that stuff I told you? Well it’s wrong.' HP are one of the companies that do not have that problem. It never had a legacy database business. That clarity is very interesting to us."

Now it's possible that the sale of perhaps 75,000 licenses of IMAGE and Eloquence during the HP enterprise days of the '70s through the '90s never came up during Lynch's due diligence. After all, Hewlett-Packard really didn't exist until they bought Compaq, or squashed its printer business model onto its enterprise computing operations, right? Whatever drove that HP is the old enterprise strategy, we suppose.

This becomes interesting while HP tries to re-invent itself through a new devotion to enterprise software. The fact that HP is suing Oracle to make that vendor revive the database's Itanium development -- well, perhaps that doesn't indicate HP's got a legacy database there. The 140,000 Oracle sites which run HP-UX might as well be a HP legacy database business, because every non-Windows computer has got some legacy database shipped by Oracle. If it weren't for the Windows platform, HP would be captive to the Oracle database operation.

If a database falls in the HP market and Lynch isn't around, does it make a sound? Here's the Journal, missing the sound of Rdb, the database still in operation on the OpenVMS servers in HP's enterprise lineup. Yes, VMS was a longtime Digital product. But it's only running on HP's servers by now, just like Rdb. Oracle bought Rdb in 1994 before HP bought Digital, and Oracle's been updating it for 17 years. Until this spring, when Oracle announced it wouldn't do any Itanium coding after this year.

HP CEO Leo Apotheker has been taking a shelling for the way the company wants to turn itself into the New IBM, using enterprise plays like buying Autonomy. In another section of the WSJ website, Lewis said one of the CEO's wrong moves is "it plans to buy British business software company Autonomy for $10 billion, because it makes enterprise software just like SAP, which is what Mr. Apotheker knows best." When you see the leader of an acquired company reporting HP never sold database software, you have to wonder what else isn't being shared about enterprise strategy.

The cliched phrase for this kind of selective vision is "The emperor has no clothes." Meaning that Autonomy thinks HP never had databases, or sells any of its own -- no matter what you can see on that console in front of your 3000. There is genuine need for managing something unstructured at HP today, to be sure. It might be any sense of its legacy, now that HP's returning to enterprise business -- even if its new partner doesn't want to see those legenday clothes.