Battle Lines Drawn

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2002-05-06 Print this article Print

Database vendors such as IBM and Oracle Corp. seek to expand far beyond simply managing relational data.

Database vendors such as IBM and Oracle Corp. seek to expand far beyond simply managing relational data. In their efforts, theyre raising a fundamental question for enterprises: Should information as far-flung as e-mail, documents, multimedia and XML be stored in the same vendors DBMS, or should the database act to virtually unify all forms of data wherever theyre stored?

IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., and Oracle, of Redwood Shores, Calif., are making starkly different bets in answering those questions. IBM has focused on what it calls a federated approach to data management, incorporating technology into its flagship DB2 database that allows it to manage and query data across multiple vendors databases and other data stores. Oracle, on the other hand, has trumpeted a more centralized approach, emphasizing the management benefits of storing structured and unstructured data in the same DBMS.

"Were at the beginning of the battle of what information integration is going to look like in the future," said Terilyn Palanca, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. "Were seeing the role of the database management system expand, and whether that means integrating information into a databases own storage or expanding [the database] across data stresses where the philosophical difference lies [between vendors]."

IBMs federated approach is based on Garlic, which allows the use of SQL for many forms of information as if they were relational data, said Janet Perna, general manager of data management at IBM. That technology, combined with DB2s optimizer, underpins the federated approach.

But the next step involves moving beyond joining data only through SQL and adding further XML support. Developments out of IBMs Xperanto initiative should, in the next nine to 12 months, allow DB2 to integrate data using XQuery, a developing standard for searching XML documents.

"Where this [is] ultimately going to go is DB2 as an information server," Perna said. "All of the [enterprise] content is not going to be in one place. What we really want to be able to do is federate this information to provide a single view of the aggregated content they need. Weve been evolving DB2 to be the server of that integrated view."

To Brenda Castiel, an enterprise architect for IT outsourcing provider Electronic Data Systems Corp., in Los Angeles, IBMs federated approach fits more into the reality Castiel sees in the enterprise clients with which she works. The federated approach, in fact, is being considered by one of her recent clients, which she declined to name, to bring together multiple Oracle data marts in a single view, instead of trying to move data into a central repository.

"With the federated approach, IBM has recognized that not everyone is going to use IBM software and that customers have a variety of databases," Castiel said. "Not every customer starts with a blueprint and grows in a rational, integrated fashion."

Oracle hasnt abandoned the idea of integrating data from multiple sources and non-Oracle databases into a common view, said Andy Mendelsohn, senior vice president of server technologies at Oracle. But the company emphasizes the move toward storing more and more forms of data in Oracle databases, rather than managing disparate data stores.

"Moving forward, people will have cost-of-ownership savings, and there will be a real value to moving all data into databases, but thats not the way it is today," Mendelsohn said.

So Oracle does provide integration technology—which Mendelsohn said is similar to IBMs federated approach—that enables an Oracle database to access and manage data from non-Oracle databases and other stores such as file systems. These technologies include Oracle gateways for conducting distributed queries and integration across SQL databases, as well as features to access data in SQL "blobs" and in Web sites, Mendelsohn said. Oracles next release of its 9i database, due this month, will include enhanced messaging capabilities called Oracle Streams to move data between Oracle databases, between Oracle databases and non-Oracle databases or even to an application server, he said.

Such integration capabilities, however, arent heavily touted by Oracle. Its focus has been on persuading customers to move more data to Oracle databases. An example of the companys strategy came from Oracle CEO Larry Ellison at Comdex in November, where he publicly touted his claim that the database can better store and manage e-mail than a set of Microsoft Corp. Exchange e-mail servers.

"We want to manage all of your data. Thats one of our mantras," Mendelsohn said. "Weve been doing work over years to make the database a better manager for more types of data than classical relational tables."

Oracle faces a tough sell in persuading enterprises with legacy data stores to convert that data into Oracle databases, Gigas Palanca said. Oracles approach makes the most sense for newer companies building from scratch, she said.

While IBMs federated database approach seems to fit better with enterprise realities, Palanca said, IBM has yet to explain where DB2s integration role fits in relation to its other products, such as content management and portals, leaving customers unsure of the companys direction.

"IBM looks more reasonable," Palanca said. "But neither vendor is in a position to say theyve proven without a doubt that [their approach] works absolutely and is better than anything else."

Matthew Hicks As an online reporter for, Matt Hicks covers the fast-changing developments in Internet technologies. His coverage includes the growing field of Web conferencing software and services. With eight years as a business and technology journalist, Matt has gained insight into the market strategies of IT vendors as well as the needs of enterprise IT managers. He joined Ziff Davis in 1999 as a staff writer for the former Strategies section of eWEEK, where he wrote in-depth features about corporate strategies for e-business and enterprise software. In 2002, he moved to the News department at the magazine as a senior writer specializing in coverage of database software and enterprise networking. Later that year Matt started a yearlong fellowship in Washington, DC, after being awarded an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship for Journalist. As a fellow, he spent nine months working on policy issues, including technology policy, in for a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He rejoined Ziff Davis in August 2003 as a reporter dedicated to online coverage for Along with Web conferencing, he follows search engines, Web browsers, speech technology and the Internet domain-naming system.

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