Oracle stronghold under threat from Microsoft

A new report on the relational database market has ranked Oracle as the leading database vendor, although Microsoft is expected...

A new report on the relational database market has ranked Oracle as the leading database vendor, although Microsoft is expected to quickly gain ground as customers seek new ways to reduce their IT budgets.

The report, published this month by Meta Group, examines the four top database vendors against a dozen criteria. Oracle9i came out on top in most areas including technology, services and execution, putting it in Meta Group's "leader" category. IBM's UDB 7.2 and Microsoft's SQL Server 2000 were ranked "challengers", while Sybase's ASE 12.5 was deemed a "follower".

Despite the findings of the report, Meta Group warns that the database market is likely to change quickly. Customers are looking to cut costs by using servers based on Intel processors, which tend to be less expensive than the RISC-based machines most often used to run large databases. This will benefit Microsoft, whose latest operating system is proving to be surprisingly reliable and scalable, Charlie Garry, a Meta Group senior program director and author of the report, said.

The emergence of Microsoft's .net technology as a rival to Java for building Internet-based applications should also help it to win new customers for SQL Server, Garry said. Developers who choose .net could probably use an Oracle or IBM database to deploy their applications but many will choose SQL Server in the hope of finding greater compatibilities, he said.

Also in Microsoft's favour is the emergence of what Meta Group terms "undifferentiated competency" among databases. While Oracle and IBM are seen as database technology leaders, all of the top vendors' products these days are considered "good enough" for handling most types of corporate tasks, according to Garry.

Oracle nevertheless fared well in the study, which compared the top four relational database management systems available for Unix and Windows. Oracle was ranked "very good" for its vision and strategy, being seen as a trendsetter with a good track record that spells out its message clearly to customers. Its services record is "very good/excellent," in terms of customer support and the quantity and quality of third-party consultants. It also ranked highest for "execution," for its ability to deliver useful new features quickly.

In addition, Oracle should also benefit from the expected move to Intel-based servers. While Windows will gain traction in the data centre more quickly than Linux, the open source operating system will become a mainstream platform for databases in five to six years, according to Garry. Oracle has been more aggressive than IBM in promoting its Linux database, he said. For example, it worked with Red Hat to hone a version of Linux for Oracle9i, and even offers to support the OS for its customers.

"It's almost as if [Oracle] is building their own OS for the database," Garry said. "IBM has been slow to be as bold."

Despite this, Oracle scored poorly in some areas. In terms of pricing it ranked last - the company has been forced to address recent confusion over pricing for its 11i E-Business Suite - and its sales teams have been accused by analysts of overselling software. Oracle also has a reputation among customers and its ISV (independent software vendor) partners as being too aggressive, according to Garry.

Such issues will hurt Oracle moving forward, he predicted. As differences in technology become less apparent, customers will choose their vendor based on how easy they are to do business with. "The light has come on at Oracle and it is trying to clean up its image, but some customers are so angry at Oracle they're just looking for a reason to switch," he said.

IBM, meanwhile, is at something of a crossroads, according to Garry. It ranked highest in Meta Group's study for pricing, awareness/reputation and geographic coverage, and ranked equal first in the areas of agility and personnel. Its strongest asset is probably its reputation for services and support, Garry said. "Customers believe IBM is the better partner when it comes to understanding enterprise solutions," he said. "People see them as being more benevolent than Oracle and Microsoft."

But IBM has "lost the Unix battle" to Oracle, he said, meaning that Oracle will retain its market share lead on that platform, and IBM needs to be more aggressive if it wants to benefit from the move to Linux and Intel-based servers. If it works hard to promote DB2 on Linux "they have the opportunity to own that market," but to date IBM hasn't displayed the "win at all costs" mentality shown by Oracle and Microsoft, Garry said.

"The thing I like about all this is that it's really becoming a user's market," Garry said. "This is great for our customers."

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