Oracle Bouncing Off the Bottom?

"We've hit bottom." Heard that before?

When it comes to Oracle ( ORCL), that phrase tends to come from CFO Jeff Henley, who said it again last night as the database giant announced better-than-expected second-quarter earnings. But this time he may be right.

The key: an uptick in database sales to new customers and companies adding to existing Oracle installations, over and above routine maintenance and upgrade revenue. In the just-concluded second quarter, that revenue increased 0.5% to $643.4 million, compared with $640.2 million in the second quarter of last year. That increase was overshadowed by an overall drop of 7% in license revenues, and a 34% slide in license revenues from the company's much-smaller application business.

But analysts who follow Oracle and the database market closely think the increase is more significant than its relatively small size might indicate. It could presage better times for Oracle -- and the rest of the enterprise software sector.

Here's why.

Databases are big-ticket items -- Oracle charges $40,000 per CPU for its premier product, before discounts. And a large customer runs multiple processors. So when IT budgets get tight, as they have for the last two years, companies find ways to defer that purchase, says Carl Olofson, an analyst and program director for the International Data Corp. "This could well mean that IT budgets are starting to loosen," he says.

Moreover, IT spending tends to ripple -- more databases can mean more application development and storage projects. In theory, that could also mean higher hardware sales, but the modest Oracle uptick would be a very thin reed on which to hang that possibility.

The good database news was somewhat surprising because that segment of Oracle's business declined on a year-over-year basis for six quarters. "At one point, we didn't know just where it would stop," says Patrick Walravens of JMP Securities. But the decline slowed in the previous two quarters, and now "they've stopped the losing streak." The year-over-year increase, although small, comes after new database revenue dropped by 23% and 29% year over year during the two preceding quarters.

"My sense is that the database market has stabilized and we would expect Oracle's database business to grow 5% to 10%" going forward, said Walravens, whose company does not have an investment banking relationship with Oracle.

Structural changes in Oracle's sales force also may have helped turn database sales around, says Cameron Steele of RBC Capital Markets. Until about 18 months ago, Oracle allowed customers to buy ahead, in effect, buying more licenses than needed in expectation of using them in the future. That has the effect of raising current revenue at the expense of future revenue. That's not necessarily a bad strategy in boom times when database vendors are fighting for share in a growing market.

But when IT budgets shrink, customers use the "banked" licenses at a slower rate and "inventory" piles up, Steele explains. Now it appears that those licenses are being used up, and customers are starting to buy again. Steele, a former Oracle employee, holds some Oracle shares in his personal portfolio, but RBC Capital Markets does not do investment banking for Oracle.

In a generally upbeat conference call following the announcement, Henley said he expects revenues in the current quarter to be up as much as 4%. "We are working on the assumption that we have hit bottom and we are moving up," he said.

It will probably take more than one quarter to see if Oracle is really coming around. The third quarter tends to be seasonally slow for Oracle, due to the holidays and a short month in February, says Walravens.

Oracle shares closed up at 37 cents Thursday, or 3.5%, to $11 on a rather slow and lackluster day. Also gaining in the enterprise software sector were Siebel ( SEBL), up 16 cents to $7.51, and PeopleSoft ( PSFT), which gained 75 cents to close at $18.86.

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