Database returns - the SQL story unfolds

In one field at least, Microsoft could be seen as the David pitched against the twin Goliaths of IBM and Oracle. IT Today wonders...

In one field at least, Microsoft could be seen as the David pitched against the twin Goliaths of IBM and Oracle. IT Today wonders if its SQL database products and strategy can rock those giants.

Microsoft has ambitions to be more than the bottom slice in the database sandwich. Long regarded as a low end database best suited to departments and SMEs, SQL Server has been pitched at the data centre since the launch of version 7 three years ago. Now the company is producing benchmark figures claiming that SQL Server 2000 running on clustered systems - it supports up to 32 CPUs - can compete with the mainframe.

Microsoft, Compaq and Unisys have published industry TPC-C benchmarks showing SQL Server processing the equivalent of more than a billion transactions a day, at a much lower price/performance ratio than Unix or mainframes. This, they claim, is 'proof that SQL Server accomplishes mainframe-class computing performance for an overall lower total cost of ownership'.

While they provide a diverting side-show, TPC-C benchmarks, taken in laboratory conditions, don't have an awful lot of relevance to the messy realities of everyday business computing. The fact that TPC-C benchmarks are back in the headlines, and the subject of vicious quarrels between Oracle and Microsoft - who had to withdraw some figures last year - tells us little more than that the database wars are back with us.

SQL Server 2000 introduced federated databases, or Distributed Partitioned Views, as Microsoft calls them. Federated databases have been a key plank of IBM's strategy for DB2 for a decade. But where IBM's purpose was integration and inclusivity, Microsoft needed to partition and distribute large databases over multiple Intel based servers if it was to compete with high end Unix processors and mainframes. They've still got a long way to go: SQL Server 2000 doesn't offer the single-system image management which both DB2 and Oracle provide.

Oddly, Microsoft was also behind Oracle and IBM in providing XML support in its dbms. XML is at the heart of Microsoft's .Net and Web Services vision. In an interview with the analysts Bloor Research, Gordon Mangione, vice president of Microsoft's SQL Server Team, explained that SQL Server is the foundation of .Net.

They have included a XML web gateway for the database, making it possible to submit queries via a browser, and receive results as XML. But the gateway is based on IIS - target of an ongoing series of virus and hacker attacks, leading Gartner Group to recommend that businesses consider other web servers. Companies may think twice before making this the mechanism for XML-enabled business transactions.

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Another weakness
Transaction-SQL, Microsoft's version of the Standard Query Language used with relational databases, trails behind IBM and Oracle's versions. Not surprising perhaps, given Microsoft's focus on its own languages, but another weakness where mission critical enterprise computing is concerned.

Microsoft also has a lot of catching up to do with multimedia data handling. Competitors struggled with this technology; it caused Oracle huge problems, and broke Informix. It remains to be seen whether Microsoft can ride on the back of other vendors' experience, or whether it has its own pain to go through.

The big plus for SQL Server 2000 is its integral business intelligence capability. Online analytical processing (Olap) was introduced with SQL Server 7, making a previously expensive technology universally affordable, and driving down the prices rivals could charge.

According to Gartner Dataquest, SQL Server 2000 Analysis Services is 'a robust BI platform, has data mining capabilities, albeit simple ones, stacks up very well against Gartner's criteria for BI platforms, and is capable of standing up successfully against its major competitors in the Windows market.'

But Microsoft makes bigger claims. The T3 project, a joint effort by EMC, ProClarity, Microsoft, and Unisys, claims to be the biggest Olap system ever built. Using data from a real business, and simulating real-world queries, T3 is an Olap cube built from a 1.2-terabyte SQL Server 2000 data warehouse. The cube, however, is only 471 gigabytes - smaller than the source data. This highlights a problem with most rdbms based Olap solutions, where the need to provide multi-dimensional views of data means the cube tends to end up massively larger than the source. Microsoft says the median query response time, based on 50 concurrent users, is less than 0.08 seconds.

Microsoft is in a double-bind over Java; it wants to stamp it out, but can't afford not to support it. In September, the company revealed it was licensing a JDBC (Java Database Connectivity) product from Merant, which would be included with SQL Server 2000.

'This announcement, a small but important concession in Microsoft's 'anti-Java' strategy, strengthens SQL Server's ability to compete with Oracle and IBM,' Gartner Group commented. 'By offering direct, out-of-the-box JDBC, SQL Server will increase its appeal to potential customers that have commitments to business software providers using Java rather than Microsoft's own Com+ or .Net infrastructures.'

Nevertheless, Gartner pointed out, JDBC is still a secondary API for Microsoft. 'SQL Server's rivals, Oracle and DB2, provide JDBC drivers as well as Java Stored Procedures (JSPs) and Java precompilers for embedded SQL.' And Gartner believes that 'cultural issues, not technical ones, predispose Java developers to prefer Unix over Windows and, by extension, to prefer Oracle and DB2 over SQL Server'.

Affordability has always been Microsoft's great strength. Via the SQL Server home page, you can access an Excel based calculator which compares SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition with DB2 Enterprise Edition. Microsoft asserts that although the base prices are comparable, IBM charges for features like Olap that Microsoft includes as standard. 'For example, an organisation that uses a server with eight processors to deliver Olap and data mining capability will pay 214 percent more for DB2.'

This takes no account of the fact that DB2 is a more stable rdbms with a richer functionality drawn from its origins on the mainframe. Microsoft's TCO (total cost of ownership) advantage may also disappear in larger installations, where there's a wide choice of management tools for DB2 that are only just emerging for SQL Server. And while these are cost-conscious times, the database makes up only a part of an overall solution, with a relatively trivial cost compared to applications, like SAP, that may use it.

In pitching SQL Server at the enterprise, Microsoft is staking everything on getting its operating systems into the datacentre. Challenged by Bloor that without Unix and mainframe ports, SQL Server could not expect to be taken seriously, Mangione responded: 'We will not port to other operating systems. We are absolutely committed to Windows. I don't believe that porting is good for the product. We work with Unisys and Compaq to make sure that our Windows systems run very well in the data centre and we are completely committed to that.'

So a recent survey by Morgan Stanley would have made unpleasant reading. Out of 200 CIOs questioned, only 16 per cent thought SQL Server was ready for the enterprise; and while 32 per cent thought it was almost ready, 29 per cent said it was a long way off. Worse, 60 per cent felt Microsoft's operating systems were from two to five years off being ready for the data centre.

Great strength
Microsoft may also be at a disadvantage because it doesn't provide a 'one-stop shop' for solutions via a direct salesforce. This is IBM's great strength, and one that Oracle has recently been trying to emulate -at the cost of antagonising erstwhile partners. In his interview with Bloor, Mangione acknowledged this. 'IBM is a very serious, tough, competitor. We have a better product, but IBM has a huge solutions sales story that some people seem to like. Some of the buyers out there like to be able to buy hardware, software, services - the whole lot - in one go. But I think people fail to realise that Microsoft, with its OEMs, can provide that very same solution.'

Benchmark factory and spotlight
One company providing management tools for large-scale SQL Server installations is Quest Software. Quest offers two products: Benchmark Factory, a load testing and capacity-planning tool that emulates thousands of users to predict system behaviour and identify performance bottlenecks before applications go live; and Spotlight on SQL Server, a real-time, diagnostics and resolution tool. The Microsoft Technology Center in Mountain View, California, is using these tools on customers' critical e-business projects.

Alison Umney, a senior systems consultant at Quest, says companies are now trusting SQL Server for mission-critical applications. 'We're aware of one company that has standardised on SQL Server as its enterprise database.'

While it may not be functionally rich as its competitors, Umney says the 80:20 rule applies. 'Eighty per cent of the functionality is there now.' She says a lot of the momentum is coming from companies who started small with SQL Server, and whose applications have grown with it. 'It's now capable of handling huge applications.'

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