`Microsoft Programmers Need More Sleep Than We Do'

If Lawrence J. Ellison winds up leading the Infobahn race, it will be thanks to the efforts of a few young engineers. They're the guys who designed Oracle Corp.'s Video Server, a program to dish up digitized video. While most interactive TV technology is still gestating, British Telecom PLC and Bell Atlantic say that Oracle's system works and that they're ready to expand their trials. Not bad, considering the Oracle team built its first prototype in just two months.

The project got started back in mid-1993, when engineers Andrew Laursen, then aged 34, and William Bailey, then 27, were already working on a program for sending video clips across a network. Laursen got the idea of trying the program on as many as 1,000 processors at once. Bailey's response: "You know, dude, I think we can do this."

The idea may have been simple. Getting it right wasn't. Broadcasting a digitized film is fairly easy. Serving up 100 different films to 100 houses at 100 different times is a programming nightmare. Laursen's idea was to use a supercomputer from Ellison's nCube Inc. to split the video data into 1,000 different segments and store each of them on a different disk drive, controlled by its own microprocessor. One processor coordinates all the others so the film flows seamlessly in the correct order. When a new viewer orders a film--whether it's 20 seconds or 20 minutes later--the first drives can start delivering the film.

In June, 1993, they took their plan to Ellison, who gave it an immediate thumbs-up. "Larry likes sexy-sounding technologies," says Bailey. Six weeks later, he dropped by the lab, where the programmers had yet to get a single video to play. But the boss wanted to show off the setup--at a conference less than three weeks away. After a quarter-million dollars in new gear and 11/2 weeks of round-the-clock work, the team had its first success: At quarter to midnight on a Saturday night, it sent a Pink Floyd video to a PC. The programmers called Ellison at home, and within an hour he arrived, date in tow. "I wanted to see it," Ellison says. "I couldn't just leave her there."

The next step--getting more than one video at a time to play--was harder. The server worked, but the software for the three PCs that were to run the videos didn't. A day before the conference, two PCs were working. Then, one crashed. Finally, in desperation, they copied the entire program from the working PC onto the others, and at 10 p.m. on the night of the show, miraculously the system worked.

"UNBELIEVABLY COOL." How did the Oracle team do in two months what Microsoft Corp. took more than a year to pull off? "Microsoft programmers need more sleep than we do," cracks Bailey. Laursen believes that it had more to do with determination--and a prod from Ellison. The program has since been adapted to run on a wide range of computers, including systems from Digital Equipment Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.

Microsoft executives remain unimpressed. They believe that they can do the same thing with a network of PCs--for less than the $500 per household (not including the TV-set-top box) that a typical nCube system would cost.

While Oracle waits for the I-Way to take shape, it is trying to drum up business for its video server in corporations and online services. Using high-speed integrated services digital network (ISDN) phone lines, Ellison says, the server can send video to a 3-inch-by-4-inch window on desktop PCs. That would make possible video E-mail, for example. Oracle is working with Intel Corp., and sources say AT&T is considering joining the project. "This is like a video-enabled Internet," says Ellison. "It's unbelievably cool." Almost as cool as winning the I-Way race.

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