Database race hots up as IBM awakes from its slumber

The sleeping giant of enterprise databases is now fully awake and wants to grab some terrain.

The sleeping giant of enterprise databases is now fully awake and wants to grab some terrain.

IBM is displaying an aggressive streak regarding its recently unveiled DB2 Universal Database version 7, clearly announcing which vendors' turf it wants to move into and who it discounts in terms of competition.

Such a bullish stance is perhaps untypical of IBM in recent times, where partnership and standardisation have been key things to emphasise. But if the company actually believes its slogan that the database is the 'soul of e-business', then maybe IBM sees itself in a battle for its informational life. And Oracle is the other giant standing tough and large in IBM's path.

The view from the top at IBM's data management hierarchy was hard and clear during an upbeat event staged to reveal the bells and whistles on the latest version of DB2. Oracle is the main challenger to IBM dominance in providing information and content for the digital economy, according to Janet Perna, general manager for data management solutions at IBM. And Microsoft with its SQL Server platform looks out of the game, Perna reckons. She sees Microsoft suffering from a flawed strategy, namely delivering SQL Server on only one set of platforms - its own.

In making such bold statements, Perna is as much trying to de-construct the classic three-level definition of the database market as to totally dismiss anyone's chances. For instance, in conversation she admits that SQL Server will stick around, but wonders what role it might assume.

The typical three-fold description of the data management sector places DB2 as the winner on legacy platforms, Oracle as the unchallenged ruler of the so-called Unix open systems database market, and Microsoft lording the desktop and small department segments. What IBM is attempting to do is grab a hefty slice of the Unix pie - based on the resurgent RS/6000 platform - while using its Netfinity servers to deal out DB2 to the typical adopter of SQL Server on Intel compatible hardware.

'Oracle has dominated the client-server Unix market largely on the back of ERP, which has driven its growth in recent years. Microsoft had the desktop with Access and is now trying to grow in the departmental space. With e-business we now have a new market, with new applications to be written and the question remains as to who will win that day,' says Perna.

She further argues that the B2B and B2C markets will be all about leveraging the value of information, through data warehousing and analytical processing, as well as the extension of business processes. To achieve these goals on a mass scale, she reasons, will require a database founded on a Unix platform as the bedrock due to its scaleability, reliability and maturity. The choices are typically defined by Perna as being mainly between IBM's own Aix, Sun Microsystems' Solaris and Linux, the Open Source originated flavour of the day.

This leads Perna to the conclusion that Microsoft cannot actually compete with Unix platforms at present. As she puts it, you cannot rely on the reboot option when the highest level of availability is the name of the game.

In keeping with Perna's argument, IBM seems to hitting all the right buttons with the UDB version 7 release of DB2. The company claims that this release will serve the needs of the community and more traditional enterprises alike, in particular when the bricks and mortar outfits get fully into B2B operations. DB2 is also being closely aligned with the WebSphere application server, with IBM pointing to partnerships with the likes of Ariba, i2, the Global Freight Exchange and as key e-business communities embracing the database.

IBM further claims that application deployment time will be slashed in half, internet searches will be performed ten times faster than traditional relational databases, and that in most cases DB2 deployments will come at a third the price of Oracle solutions.

In addition, the company has unveiled a new pricing structure to tempt potential customers in the emergent application service provider (ASP) market, allowing them to get the DB2 UDB 7 platform for a minimal up-front investment. This model works through charges based on a per subscriber or per transaction value. The DB2 pricing model will be backed by specialised support programmes aimed at the ASPs.

On a more technical note, IBM is also claiming a first with the fully integrated in-memory capabilities of DB2. This technology permits much faster text searches for Web applications, with IBM boasting that DB2 has proved capable of making 90 million text searches a day. The mandatory inclusion of XML functionality also has to be noted, as well as the tight fit between DB2 and the requirements of business intelligence, backed by rock solid data warehousing strengths.

To be fully released in the summer, DB2 UDB 7 is currently under beta. Pricing has also yet to be announced, which means that we will have to wait and see about the claims to undercut the cost of Oracle implementations.

However, hard on the heels of the IBM push behind DB2 come the results of Gartner Group subsidiary Dataquest's most recent analysis of the relational database market - which records IBM being denied top spot by Oracle. This will not make happy reading for the Data Management group, in particular following IBM investing in excess of $1bn in recent times. Dataquest puts Oracle top with around 55 per cent of the world-wide database market worth $8bn in 1999, attributing the vendor with a stunning 63 per cent share of the Unix database market, in addition to 40 per cent of the Windows NT segment as well.

IBM questions the failure of this research to place DB2 in the number one slot, claiming that Dataquest has changed its methodology and that the subsequent results are misleading. In fact, the problem is that IBM was 'taxed' on DB2 revenue from mainframe sales, according to Mike Blake, data management consultant at IBM UK. Dataquest cut 15 per cent from this value, due to the fact that IBM does not charge separately for database maintenance on that platform. Even so, Blake points out that Oracle was attributed with 31 per cent of the worldwide database market, while IBM trailed with a mere 29.9 per cent, having made up the lost mainframe figures through high growth rates. Blake is not too disappointed by the Dataquest results, reckoning that IBM will overtake Oracle soon enough anyway.

Despite the squabbling around analyst figures, this neck-and-neck scramble to the top between remains difficult to call. Oracle seems equally committed to serving the data management needs of e-business users, based on any client-server configuration.

Founded solidly on the Oracle 8i database, the company has conceived a three-tier architecture known as the Oracle Internet Platform. This features a browser based client separated from the middle tier applications, along with the business logic and data store at the back end. Directory services are provided based on the LDAP standard, with other industry standards covered including all the internet protocols and Corba compliant broker middleware, as well as leading security technology. Network services and systems management are also emphasised, along with a structured approach to creating a B2B infrastructure.

Given the boom that is taking place in the database market, it is hardly surprising to find that Microsoft is equally bullish in its own right about SQL Server. Reports from the likes of Dataquest and Morgan Stanley show that the database is growing the fastest and outstrips the expansion of both IBM and Oracle, according to Marina Stedman, product manager for SQL Server at Microsoft. Stedman also reckons that 250 of the top UK companies are using SQL Server more than any other relational database.

Like its main rivals in databases, Microsoft is aiming for the ASP and B2B space and will also use the various software modules defined for Windows 2000 - such as AppCenter Server, BizTalk and Commerce Server 2000 - to deliver extra functions. One of Microsoft's key objectives is to make complex e-business environments easy to manage and administer. Stedman states that third party tools can be easily worked into a Microsoft centric information model, such as the leading BI and highly significant software.

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