Oracle, the leader in relational databases, is playing catchup everywhere else

You’ve got to hand it to Larry Ellison. The Oracle(s orcl) CEO has his priorities and so when it came down to a choice between delivering his second Oracle Openworld 2013 keynote of the week or watching a potential elimination race in the America’s Cup race series, he bailed on the keynote. His no-show was announced 45 minutes after he was supposed to appear on stage, much to the dismay of the assembled masses at San Francisco’s Moscone Center.

Oracle shareholders might share that chagrin given that Oracle, which remains the market share leader in relational databases, faces big challenges in faster-growing parts of its market where it faces an array of non-relational database challengers and a big in-memory database threat from arch-rival SAP(s sap) with HANA.

Frankly, in the past Ellison’s second keynotes at Oracle OpenWorld were proof positive that less can be more. Still, if the CEO of a company under threat can’t be bothered to show up at his own massive customer event (Oracle claims 60,000 attendees this year), shareholders might wonder what’s up.

To recap the OpenWorld news: Ellison kicked off it all off Sunday night with news of an in-memory database option for the latest Oracle 12C database which he said will run at “ungodly speed.” The in-memory option — which competes with the aforementioned HANA — will be broadly available next year. (Check out database guru Curt Monash’s take on the in-memory database fervor here.)

Oracle also previewed new Software-as-a-Service options — all the better to compete with its best frenemy crm) and other SaaS companies like Workday which are encroaching on important application areas Oracle hoped to keep to itself. Oracle’s reluctance to adjust its licensing and pricing to offer true database-as-a-service has dinged it as it faces increased competition from database options from Amazon Web Services(s amzn).

That’s one reason it launched a partnership with database rival Microsoft to run Oracle database on Windows Azure. To be fair, Oracle database does run on AWS as well, but those old-world enterprise-y licensing terms put it at a disadvantage to less costly and perhaps less feature-rich database options., run by former Ellison lieutenant Marc Benioff, waited till just before OpenWorld to announce a tighter alliance with Workday. That news comes three months after Oracle and announced a similar alliance. runs on Oracle’s database, but the two companies compete tooth and nail for CRM and other customers at the application level.

As legacy companies like Oracle, IBM(s ibm), HP(s hpq), and Microsoft(s msft) want a bigger piece of the cloud, look for more of these semi-unnatural alliances to pop up. For all the kind words exchanged by Benioff and Ellison when they talked up their alliance last June, if you don’t think Oracle and want to bash each others’ brains in, you’d better think again.

P.S. The Oracle USA team won the yacht race. But, what happens in the post-relational database race remains very much up in the air.