Don't bet the business on technology

There are only three major database suppliers these days, with two relatively minor ones standing out from the generic "other"...

There are only three major database suppliers these days, with two relatively minor ones standing out from the generic "other" category.

As database technology becomes commoditised, users' choice of supplier will increasingly depend on the technology available from the database companies.

Many people might think that with Oracle's giant market share, the choice of database supplier is a no-brainer. In truth, Oracle's market share has dropped recently, while IBM's has increased, according to the companies' own figures. The three leading vendors, Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft, have diverse strategies depending on which area of database technology you look at.

XML and objects
XML is vitally important to the database community both as a querying technology and, in some cases, as a storage mechanism. Thomas Gregers Honoré, data solutions marketing manager at IBM, says that the DB2 development team has been busy building not only XML querying technology into the database, but also the ability to store data in XML format using the DB2 data extender. "XML is used to describe a piece of rich content - to be able to search indexed documents, for example," he explains. "You'd store XML in a relational table and the rich objects in another part of the database."

Microsoft's XML story does not appear to be so well developed. Cassandra Nuttall, server solutions manager for the company, says that while XML can be written to the database or produced as a result of a database query, it could only be stored as a text string inside the engine rather than in true hierarchical XML format. The alternative (which IBM also provides) is to store XML in a relational format. Microsoft suggests doing it this way and using "virtual documents" to translate XML on the fly.

Chris Ward, product-marketing manager at Oracle, says that his company's approach to storing objects has been to put a Java Virtual Machine into its database engine. The Java object can include SQL data, and can also encapsulate stored procedures as methods, or use methods that are an instance of an object class.

OLAP in the box
One area where Microsoft is excelling, says Nuttall, is that it provides online analytical processing (OLAP) tools inside the same box, free of charge, as part of the database price. Oracle's strategy involves OLAP as an option, but the OLAP kit falls under a single 9i database product suite to complement its 9i application server and 9i development tools. These three suites represent a consolidated set of products compared to the more complex product set that it had a year ago.

The 64-bit story
64-bit databases are important for large companies such as utilities and financial services firms because they enable vast quantities of data to be addressed in memory, speeding up processing considerably. While IBM and Oracle are already shipping 64-bit databases Microsoft appears to be lagging behind. It is worth noting that while IBM and Oracle are cross-platform databases - running on a variety of Unix operating system and Windows servers, Microsoft SQL Server only runs on Windows. As a consequence, the development of a 64-bit version is tied to the evolution of 64-bit Windows - this operating system is still in beta.

The others
IBM's says that the company is still maintaining its development of the Informix product it acquired last year and has no plans to discontinue Informix.

However, it seems unlikely that IBM would want to support the Informix user base and keep pouring money into developing another database when it already has a successful one. Honoré says the company has focused on improving integration between Informix and DB2. Commenting on the prospects for Informix users he adds: "We will make it easier and easier for them to jump to DB2 if and when they require."

With Informix safely in the IBM camp, that only leaves Sybase and Computer Associates (CA) as distinct players trailing the top three, outside of the "other" category. Sybase, while less of a shining light than it was in the mid-90s, is nevertheless keeping up with the times. It has Web service-enabled its software to be compliant with standards like Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), just as the three major players have. And it has a Java-enabled application server.

CA, facing a US Securities and Exchange Commission review of its accounting procedures, is still doggedly plugging the Ingres database that it bought in the mid-90s, having released Advantage Ingres 2.6 in February this year. The company's profile in the market is nevertheless low compared to its rivals.

The market has consolidated of late, thanks to a combination of mismanagement in companies such as Informix, and the marketing prowess of the larger players. With three major players and two relatively minor ones to choose from, the choice of database that you make will depend on factors such as your existing platform, the price of the product, and its feature set in particular areas that are of importance to you.

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