Oracle's SAP suit raises users' ethics concerns

Oracle's surprise legal move against rival SAP has users voicing their concerns about the ethics of software vendors

Oracle's surprise legal move against its main business applications rival SAP has raised questions again about the likely impact on customers of corporate scandals in the IT world. Whatever the outcome of the case, users are voicing their concerns about software vendors' ethics.

Oracle filed a lawsuit in U.S. Federal District Court on Thursday against SAP, its SAP America division, its TomorrowNow subsidiary and 50 unnamed individuals Oracle claims were SAP employees. The complaint charges that SAP committed "corporate theft on a grand scale," with one or more staff at TomorrowNow allegedly pretending to be Oracle customers and illegally hacking into its secure support Web site for users of Oracle's PeopleSoft and JD Edwards applications. SAP then allegedly copied content from the site and used it to offer Oracle customers cut-rate support services in the hopes of eventually migrating them over to SAP's rival applications.

So far, SAP has yet to respond publicly to the accusations, perhaps suggesting that a countersuit could be in the offing. As for Oracle, the vendor hasn't made any additional comment beyond the lawsuit itself.

"If we decide to trust a company, we'd hope it to be justified," said an IT manager at a French company that uses JD Edwards applications and sources its support for that software from TomorrowNow. "When we choose a supplier, we don't necessarily investigate them first," he added. The manager agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for himself and his company.

While products, services and price are primary factors in procurement decisions, a vendor's ethics and business practices are also extremely important, according to John Matelski, chief security officer and deputy chief information officer for the city of Orlando and a JD Edwards user. He's also the former president of the Quest International Users Group, which focuses on the needs of PeopleSoft and JD Edwards applications customers that Oracle acquired through the January 2005 purchase of PeopleSoft.

"As a public-sector entity, which is directly accountable to its citizens and constituents, I would be concerned about our relationship with any vendor that is proven to conduct business in an unethical manner," Matelski wrote in an e-mail response for comment. He would prefer to do business with companies that can be trusted, and do not have a track record of inappropriate business practices.

"Due to the nature of the relationships that we develop, software vendors and consultants would be held to a higher standard, because they would typically have a greater level of access to our systems and data during implementation and support engagements," Matelski wrote. "The security and privacy of our data is key, and if an organization is known to have illegally obtained data before, I would need to be much more careful when evaluating whether to establish or continue a relationship with them."

David Mitchell, software practice leader at analyst Ovum drew a comparison between the potential damage of the lawsuit with fallout of the corporate spy scandal that hit Hewlett-Packard last year. Despite leading to the resignations of several executives including its chairman, HP weathered the storm well and customers stayed loyal to the company.

"With HP, [CEO Mark] Hurd responded positively, he apologized," Mitchell said. "It was about the approach they took when something inappropriate had happened. If HP had not responded so positively I think they would have seen more negative consequences."

Should Oracle's charges against SAP be proven, "they need to embrace it and reassure people how it's come about," he added. If there was some wrongdoing, Mitchell, the former senior director for market development at Oracle UK, believes it'll turn out to be the work of one bad apple. "SAP ethically and culturally is a very correct organization, this isn't rotten DNA," he said. "If this turns out to be true, then it will be an individual, I think, who has acted inappropriately."

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