Database Size Isnt Everything

Oracle holds lead, but IBM and Microsoft battle for bigger slice of estimated $8.8 billion market.

Larry Ellison likes to say the battle for the enterprise database market is over, and Oracle has won. He should meet Steve Olson, technical engineer at Illinois Power Co., in Decatur, Ill.

Although most of Olsons companys core business operations run on Oracle8i database software, he is beginning to cast glances at the offerings of other database vendors, particularly IBM and its DB2. Why? IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., offers a host of XML (Extensible Markup Language) and Java links, has the key advantage of being less expensive than Oracle, and works on the same platforms.

"Id have to put us generically in the camp of Oracles pricing is too expensive," Olson said. "As something new comes up, well consider both" Oracle and IBM, he said.

Olsons thoughts are not uncommon among enterprise database administrators. The battle for the hearts and minds of IT professionals is intensifying, as Oracle and main rivals IBM and Microsoft Corp. hype their respective databases and the databases roles within the rest of the enterprise infrastructure. As the market leader, Oracle has the most to lose in this battle. Some Oracle users said they are pleased with the performance of the companys database technology but theyre concerned about its price.

Oracle this month released Oracle9i, touting its enhanced clustering capabilities and restructured pricing plan. That came just weeks after IBM—which in April bought Informix Corp. and its 100,000 database users for $1 billion—unveiled its upgrade of DB2, Version 7.2. Microsofts SQL Server 2000 is due for a service pack this summer.

Several engineers said IBMs and Microsofts products are good enough to do the work and at a better price than Oracles. Still, scalability debates, controversial benchmarks and executive-level mudslinging are making it difficult for users to decide on which vendor to bet their infrastructures.

As with the rest of the industry, slowing demand and the dot-com crash have hurt database sales. But with the sharp rise in the amount of data being generated, the market is still a lucrative one—$8.8 billion, according to Gartner Dataquest—and the vendors are throwing their massive weight behind efforts to grab their share.

Oracle, IBM and Microsoft agree on many fundamental things, such as the need for new tool sets built on XML, increased numbers and the scope of third-party applications, more reliability gains from application clustering, and wireless device integration. But they strongly disagree on how to achieve those things, and for Oracle, in particular, a major criticism has been its pricing scheme. Oracle is trying to fix that with Oracle9i. The Redwood Shores, Calif., company scrapped its controversial "power unit" pricing plan, which basically charged customers by the speed of the computers on which the databases run. As a result, many customers said they felt they were being penalized for upgrading to more powerful computers, and Oracles software prices tended to be higher than its rivals.

Now—more in line with IBMs and Microsofts models—Oracle will price Oracle9i on a per-processor basis. But while acknowledging that the software is twice the cost of IBMs DB2 for Unix and Windows and Microsofts SQL Server 2000, Ellison, Oracles CEO and chairman, said his products application clustering will negate the issue.

Ellison said Oracle9i will continue to see further refinement with features such as on-the-fly changes to core database parameters, self-adjusting query calls, more efficient failover processes, updated globalization options and new analytical processing integration.

Despite the splash of Oracle9i, IBM, Microsoft and even born-again vertical specialist Sybase Inc., of Emeryville, Calif., are continuing their campaigns to woo users on the database fence. While IBM and Microsoft battle Oracle head-to-head, Sybase CEO John Chen said he is mapping his companys rebound by targeting niches the so-called Big Three are ignoring.

IBM and Microsoft say the ever-imminent mobile explosion, new Web software initiatives such as IBMs Web services push and Microsofts .Net, and third-party application development will make the database industry even more wide open.

"Our approach is that data is not all going to be in the database," said Janet Perna, IBMs general manager of data management. "[The database] will be used to store metadata; it will be used to optimize access to the data. Is it practical to think that this data will all come into the database to be integrated? Heck, no. Its going to live where it lives, and the challenge will be to integrate it."

Specifically, Perna and other IBM officials said, the future of DB2 includes improved event messaging; stronger data encryption and decryption; links to other databases; and even the advocacy of Garlic, a next-generation query language. In addition, new features in database self-tuning, management interfaces, artificial intelligence and backup/disaster recovery are coming in Version 8, due next summer.

For its part, Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., is focusing on marketing SQL Servers ease of use and how it fits into the companys .Net initiative. Officials said SQL Server revenues have grown from $65 million a few years ago to $1 billion today, with more than 1 million seats deployed.

The service pack due this summer may include updated XML tools for business intelligence and analytics, said Gordon Mangione, vice president for SQL Server. For Yukon, Microsofts next-generation product to be integrated with its .Net program in about two years, the database will offer deep XML integration, new wireless access and reporting functions, and a run-time language system so developers can use the language of their choice.

Several users see good and bad in all the offerings. Oracles database technology seems the most stable, but IBMs stated feature goals resonate most with users, while some say Microsoft offers more integration with other IT systems and the simplest management features. IBMs emphasis on mainframe systems and Linux servers has been well-received in the marketplace, industry analysts and some users indicated, as a solid compromise between users who need Oracle-like reliability and a more Microsoft-like package.

But some worry that the vendors self-interests are limiting the performance between their databases and the rest of the enterprise infrastructure, with features such as application clustering and self-tuning speeding up the database but slowing other network resources. For example, Oracles new clustering will have performance bottlenecks that could hog bandwidth and processor cycles, critics say, while self-tuning features such as artificial intelligence can automate things only to the degree that administrators anticipate problems.

"At this point, Oracle is the thing we pay the most for," said Matt Raines, director of site operations at, a Web hosting company in San Francisco. "I have to pay for features I never use or seldom use."

Raines also said Oracles customer support is inconsistent, a problem that exacerbates the pricing issue.

"Most of the time, if you need something valuable, they pass you off to professional services anyway," he said. "So you pay, then you pay, then you pay one more time. Thats very frustrating. ... You know you cant really replace them. Its like a diabetic—you need your insulin, so what are you going to do?"

Other users added that Oracle9is reporting, data warehousing and maintenance need to be refined. AT&T Corp.s Simon Tse, director of Internet services, said there may be technical issues about Oracles XML tools and application integration that are beyond Oracles control. For example, XML developers themselves should be thinking about databases and not just putting the burden on software vendors. Still, "we are very happy. ... 9i is basically what were looking for," said Tse, in Bridgewater, N.J.

Other users are more open to considering the competition, but IBM and Microsoft have something to prove to companies such as NetZero Inc., an Internet service provider in Westlake Village, Calif.

Bob Hammer, director of cyber-target operations, said hell be happy when Oracle and its rivals turn talk of big- picture infrastructure into reality and stop looking at their databases as stand-alone products. "Its not the database per se that keeps me awake at night; its the intersection of the database with the operating system and the storage," he said. Like others, Hammer cites Oracles scalability and reliability as pluses. "If Microsoft tried to get us to migrate, wed laugh them out of the building," he said. "We really need an industrial-strength platform." SQL Server "would be a joke" for his needs, and IBM "hasnt courted us that strongly."

Oracle "is pretty darn stable, and we have very few problems with it," said Joseph Madden, director of managed services at Consonus Inc., a Salt Lake City management service provider. But, he added, "I think sooner or later, good enough is real," for considering DB2 or SQL Server vs. Oracle9i.