IBM To FTC: Make Oracle Stop Running Those Mean Server Ads Please
August 12, 2013 Alex Woodie
Oracle is back in lukewarm water over a line of ads that say its own Sparc and Exadata servers are between two and 20 times better than IBM‘s Power Systems servers. This time, instead of getting another slap on the wrist from an independent industry board that oversees advertising in the U.S, it could get a slap on the wrist from the Federal Trade Commission itself. It’s time for IBM, which called Oracle “a serial offender,” to take matters into its own hands.
On August 1, the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau recommended that the FTC look into Oracle’s apparent unwillingness to tone down its server advertisements. In a statement, the NAD said the IT giant “has not made a good faith effort to comply with the recommendations of previous NAD decisions” stemming from similar complaints over a series of 2012 ads by Oracle that compared its servers to those from IBM.
The ad that spurred the NAD’s referral to the FTC ran May 23, 2013, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. In the ad, which you can see below, Oracle claims that its Sparc T5 has “2.6x Better Performance” than “IBM’s Power7+ AIX.”
In the ad, Oracle makes the claim that its Sparc T5 server, which cost $299,000, got a score of 27,843 on the SPECjEnterprise2010 EJOPS benchmark, which measures Java performance, while the IBM Power Systems server, which cost $805,000, scored 10,902 on the benchmark.
Nobody disputes that Oracle did, indeed, build a system that obtained that score, that IBM obtained that score with its system, that either configuration of machines cost that much, or that 27,843 divided by 10,902 equals something close to 2.6 (the claim that Oracle’s machine is 2.5539 times better than IBM’s machine just doesn’t have the same ring to it, and probably has too many sigfigs to boot).
No, what drove IBM to complain to the NAD–and what the NAD plainly agrees with–is that it’s inadvisable and inaccurate to make broad generalizations about the total value of a server based on the results of a single benchmark. The fact that software costs are not factored into the price that Oracle gives for the servers also gives an unrealistic portrayal of real-world system costs, and doesn’t help Oracle’s cause either.
While it’s true that the Sparc T5 used in the SPECjEnterprise2010 EJOPS benchmark appeared to do really, really well on that Java workload (at least compared to that particular IBM machine), that score says absolutely nothing about either server’s capability to run other types of real-world workloads, such as database serving, to choose one example.
“NAD has determined that the advertising in question [from May 23, 2013] features the same stark, overbroad IBM-versus-Oracle comparison that NAD recommended against in the three previous cases,” the NAD says in its announcement.
Oracle Throws Down On IBM
This latest round of reactions to Oracle’s advertising bears a close resemblance to the series of events that happened last year.
In April 2012, IBM complained to the NAD about a front-page WSJ ad from Oracle that claimed its $1.2 million Sparc SuperCluster T4-4 clustered system “runs Oracle and Java twice as fast as IBM’s fastest computer,” the $4.5 million Power P795. The NAD recommended Oracle discontinue the ad.
In May 2012, Oracle started running an ad in which it claims that Exadata is “5x Faster Than IBM … Or you win $10,000,000.” The NAD asked Oracle to stop running the ad, and it complied.
In July 2012, IBM complained about another set of ads in which Oracle claims that its Exadata servers “runs 20X faster” than IBM Power Systems servers. The NAD asked Oracle to stop running them. Oracle fought the NAD’s July recommendation, and appealed to the National Advertising Review Board (NARB), which sided with IBM and NAD.
Now that Oracle has reverted to using the same provocative style of comparative advertising that got it in trouble last year, the NAD apparently has had enough, and is calling on the FTC to take legal action against the IT giant.
Four Strikes And You’re Out
The NAD said: “[Given] Oracle’s repeated failure to make a good faith effort to bring its advertising into compliance with the guidance of both NAD and NARB, NAD referred this matter to the appropriate governmental agency for possible law enforcement action.”
IBM applauded this decision. “For the fourth time in 16 months, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus determined that comparative product performance claims made by Oracle were not supported by the evidence in the record. This makes Oracle a serial offender,” an IBM spokesperson tells IT Jungle via email.
The IBM spokesperson says that “well-established” advertising standards require that comparative performance claims be supported by “accurate and reliable scientific information.” “IBM challenged Oracle’s recent ad before the NAD,” the spokesperson said, “because we believe that Oracle failed to comply with three prior NAD decisions, makes a line claim that is unsupported, contains a misleading comparison, and makes a false and misleading pricing comparison.”
Oracle appears ready to defend itself, and is going back to the specificity contained in that SPECjEnterprise2010 EJOPS benchmark. “The ad provides a clear and objective comparison between an IBM Power7+ AIX system and an Oracle Sparc T5 system using industry-standard benchmark results that legitimately show 2.6x better performance by the Oracle system,” the company says in a written statement. “NAD has failed to take into account the sophistication of the ad’s target audience, namely businesses that purchase enterprise hardware systems.”
IBM has been criticized by the Power Systems community over its own advertising strategy, or lack thereof. While many in the IBM i community consider the server to be the best business system on the planet, they are dismayed by IBM’s apparent unwillingness to back up its technological prowess with a similar level of marketing. Now that IBM’s chief competitor in the midrange is running its own ads about Power Systems, it’s time for IBM to dust off those gloves and fight back, through the power of marketing.
Oracle obviously doesn’t play by the same rulebook that IBM uses. IBM doesn’t have to hit below the belt, as Larry “the Schoolyard Bully” Ellison’s ads do. But Oracle’s provocations clearly demand a response. A strong retort from Big Blue would show customers, prospects, and partners that IBM is not a pushover, that it won’t back down, and–most importantly–that it doesn’t expect the teacher to fight its fights. Now’s the time, IBM.