Oracle Corp is touting a new Internet-enabled database and a software-outsourcing business in moves to bolster its offerings against Microsoft, which it sees as its chief software rival. Databases such as Oracle 8i, which allow user access through a Web browser via standard telephone lines, would render obsolete today's prevalent client-server networks based on Microsoft software and operating systems, Oracle chairman and chief executive Larry Ellison said last week at the firm's annual OpenWorld show. 'Little servers everywhere is a very bad idea,' he said, in a clear attack on Microsoft's Windows NT operating system and its just-launched SQL Server 7.0 database. With such an arrangement, data and information potentially useful for forecasting and analysing business trends was fragmented on to many different hard drives and computers, which made it difficult to search for and use, he said. Due for end-of-year release, Oracle 8i centralises all company data into a single database. It also allows users to drag and drop any file created by a Microsoft application such as Word or PowerPoint into a common database folder on a desktop, making the file and its contents easy to search for and manipulate. Users also can access all files using a Web browser interface over links as slow as a dial-up phone line, unlike client-server set-ups, which typically require faster local area networks. Microsoft is attempting to move its software and operating systems from desktop computers into larger and more powerful servers and workstations, which are used to run large corporations and banks. Yesterday, during chief executive Bill Gates' keynote address at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, it launched SQL Server 7.0 - an update of its database for small- and medium-sized businesses that is increasingly aimed at large companies. Oracle's rebuttal, like the current mania for 1970s fashion and music, is both new and retro. Mainframes were powerful, centralised computers running an entire network of terminals. Similarly, Oracle 8i centralises all of a company's information on to a single database, offering easier management and cheaper maintenance. The main differences are that 'thin clients' - meaning a variety of devices including PCs, PalmPilots and even consumer appliances - replace yesterday's dumb terminals and that access is through the Internet rather than fixed links. Despite handling so much more data than any single client-server database, Mr Ellison claimed Oracle 8i was 200 times faster than Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 on certain tasks, offering to pay US$1 million to anyone who could prove otherwise. Oracle's new strategy represents a strong turn away from the network computing architecture (NCA) it has promoted. Under that scheme, many large and small servers co-exist and share information in a single, possibly client-server, network. However, NCA has not taken off as Oracle hoped, and its centrepiece - a cheap, Java-based terminal called the network computer - has sold poorly. Analysts said Oracle 8i was better suited for multinational corporations and banks. Smaller companies and departments within large firms probably would continue to prefer smaller and cheaper solutions such as SQL Server. Mr Ellison also announced a rent-an-application service called Business Online. This makes Oracle software available for rent for between $395 and $895 per month, although Internet e-mail will be as cheap as $10 per user per month. Oracle says Business Online will be cheaper than buying and installing multiple copies of software on many desktop computers. Business Online also has a retro feel. One United States technology columnist pointed out that renting software was like time-sharing, with users renting time and applications on a mainframe. Business Online will be set up as a subsidiary and begin offering services early next year. Oracle also is attempting to lure software developers away from Microsoft. Oracle 8i has built-in operating system (OS) functions, including parts of the 'guts' of an operating system, a Java Virtual Machine, and a Java server. However, Mr Ellison says, Oracle 8i does not actually replace the operating system. And by porting the Oracle database on to Linux, Mr Ellison hopes to lure some of the estimated 23,000 Linux developers to write Oracle applications and software. Mr Ellison could not resist taking shots at Microsoft, which is embattled in an antitrust suit with the US Government. 'Microsoft says it is simply asking for the chance to innovate on the Internet,' he said. 'Innovate what? Microsoft is one of the great copiers of all time.' Mr Ellison dismissed speculation he was preparing to move aside in favour of Oracle's long-time president, Ray Lane, who reportedly is being wooed to head other technology firms, including EDS. 'I plan to be chief executive for many years to come,' Mr Ellison said.