Sybase CEO John Chen has been transforming the venerable Silicon Valley database developer for the past four years into a 21st-century maker of middleware and database management software.
The company is using events such as its sponsorship of the Sybase Classic golf tournament this week to promote its “unwired enterprise” concept, which focuses on enabling customers to connect their back-office data to their end users regardless of whether those users have wireless PDAs, browser-enabled PCs or any other computing device operating on the edge.
At the tournament at the Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y., Sybase Inc. is showcasing its technology, which can deliver real-time information on scores, course information and player statistics to fans PDAs and smart phones.
eWEEK Department Editor John S. McCright and Senior Writer Brian Fonseca recently spoke with Chen at Sybase headquarters in Dublin, Calif., about what progress the company has made toward enabling the unwired enterprise.
What are some of the hurdles and limitations Sybase needs to overcome in order to enable the unwired enterprise?
I believe the most important thing is applications. Applications have gone beyond e-mail, beyond sales-force automation and beyond some of the logistics of that. A lot of them are in a proof-of-concept stage.
Whether its health care, RFID with readers, in transportation, or even digital signatures or GPS stuff, theres a lot of application [development] and a lot of investment in that.
An application company like SAP [AG] is working with us and pushing the small and medium businesses [with the message], Compute whenever you want. Information means that theres no action. Computing, theres action.
We actually believe in edge computing … meaning that where you acquire the data [and] when you acquire the data, this data is meaningful in its own right, and it triggers some kind of behavior or actions or response. It could very much be right at the point of acquisitions of data.
So, we believe thats really the model going forward. That means that you need to have applications that take advantage of it, today the applications are written as more procedural apps, and theyre very back-end-oriented apps. Even distributed apps, theyre really much more of a repository for management and movement of data in a very different, complex way.
We think that the architecture of the future has [to be] more [of] a distributed repository, and the actions can get closer and closer to the users. It could be vendors, customers, employees, it could be anybody—these transactions are going to be way out there and not back here [in a centralized server room].
In this nontraditional model for moving computing out there to the edge, who are your allies?
The easiest thing is to think about allies is people like Salesforce.com. What they do is say, Im going to empower you as a salesperson, but Im also going to empower the people sitting in the back offices, or the upper management, and they can actually see all the contacts, all the calls as they happen, they can see movement of the deals, they can see the movement of the pipeline.
[They can get] a better management tool and get a better appreciation of whats going on out there, rather than just calling everybody and dialing for dollars or whatever.
This new type of application … has to be enterprise-based. That means it has to be something that you deal with behind the firewall, within the firewall and outside of the firewall. Thats a very important concept.
Were trying to approach more and more of these applications—or really these VARs—and were trying to use the angle of mobility in the application. You can see that where [Sybase has] the back end, and a lot of people have the front end … the pipe through the firewall is missing.
Acquiring that and [providing] both a continuous availability as well as official connectivity, offline and online mode, is an important thing because thats where productivity is. That is the kind of computing paradigm model we want to be the No. 1 in.
In the Sybase portfolio, you have the ASE [Adaptive Server Enterprise] database, NEON [New Era of Networks] for integration, AvantGo for delivering information to mobile users, iAnywhere Solutions mobile database and middleware. Any gaps?
I think the security world is going to explode quite rapidly. At one point, I was looking at digital signatures. The way we do encryption [is interesting], other areas such as natural language parsing. There are many areas, and some of those major areas were more likely to partner with.
And more closer to the middleware areas we probably look to own, either organically or inorganically. Were getting into messages, synchronizations, encryptions; we have quite a bit of those already today.
But there are areas I know that we can augment, like the security and biometrics areas, to make that a key component of our middleware offering.
Other areas of interest are mobile apps. In this space, I would prefer that development is done by my partners. I would prefer to encourage the VC [venture capital] community to build it, obviously on my platforms.
But in some cases, we would probably prefer to take an ownership stance. [Mobile applications could] probably get into transportation, the whole banking space, credit-card fraud, prevention and detection. If the right opportunity comes around, we would like to get into it.
Where are customers priorities today?
Today, [our] priority, because we dont have an unlimited amount of resources, is most likely focused on the mobile and wireless side. We have middleware technology—we just embedded JMS [Java Message Service] bus into the database, so you have a real-time database that allows you to publish and subscribe, for example.
Its a very critical component of your back-end data store to publish and subscribe and then communicate directly with a server—a mobile server, for example.
So, youre talking about natural language and making things easier on the development side. Where is that coming from?
Our PowerDesigner [data modeling and collaborative design software] is a very powerful designing tool. Its one that has gained a lot of respect in the market.
Pocket PowerBuilder [an integrated development environment for mobile applications] is also an area we will develop ourselves. We will probably spend some money on creating more VAR channels.
That implies that we can organically grow more VAR channels by providing software and marketing expertise in various areas and technology. But also, I would not rule out the fact that we would buy a company with exceptional VAR channels.
How important is it to make it easier for developers?
We flagged VARs as the No. 1 critical success factor. And VARs are big and small. We know a five-person VAR that helps a paper company [improve] their automation. There are VARs as big as SAP.
The second one we believe is important for us is the embedded space. We must be king of the embedded. We are one of the leading players, but I say that one, two and three [players in the market] are no more than two points apart. The embedded will actually drive more VARs; thats a very interesting combination.
The third one is the application developers. Thats where we have plans to put a lot of effort.
By embedded, do you mean like IBM has its DB2 Everywhere embedded database?
If theres any heat, its probably from [open-source DBMS] MySQL [AB]. The heat is already coming from them, [though] not so much [from the standpoint of] the functionality and features. The interesting thing about MySQL is that it is not really open source. Its disguised as open source but is a private company. Its a for-profit organization, right?
So, when the customer finally can see that and run the tests against [us], they will figure out, Oh my goodness, maybe I need to spend money on developing applications, because the moment I deploy, Im paying MySQL just as Im paying anybody else.
I never underestimate my competitors. I wouldnt be surprised if, in one year, wed be sitting here talking about Microsofts entry into the market. Itd be foolish of them not to. To think that I, for some reason, am the only person with a vision.
Thats why we bought AvantGo, thats why we focus so much on the embedded space, so much on the VAR space, so much on owning the embedded-database market, the mobile database market. Those are very important strategies of ours. … Were trying to make it hard for people to catch up.
But we will continue to grow, theres zero doubt because as the handset, the PDAs, the phones, as they converge and change shape and become an IP appliance of some sort, all these things [will be] happening in homes, organizations and businesses.
I know Im not foolish enough to believe our early lead will sustain itself forever. I know IBM has some big aspirations. Oracle is very occupied; we dont worry about Oracle. Microsoft likes to partner with us, they put AvantGo on their desktop PC in 04. Thats a positive thing. Were trying to make it as pervasive as possible with them.
What are the next steps for Sybase?
Kind of the refitting of the new apps … from Unix that want to move to Linux. Politically, we are the company best-positioned to take advantage of Linux. We have an opportunity to win because if you go to an established customer … they cant afford to disassemble their platforms.
So, we have some advantages. When Linux customers say, OK, were going to keep mission-critical apps on Linux on Sybase because we dont want to change the hardware environment, the application environment or the database environment, its perfect, because we kick back and use it as references to go into new accounts.
Theres a lot of buzz around utility computing, making better utilization of resources. Is that something you have put money into?
I think utility computing has to be a grid to be really powerful. The right way [to get the] best price performance and [lowest] total cost of ownership for our customers is you need to focus upon scalability across clusters. And you need to focus upon scalability across a distributed environment.
I actually dont agree with the idea that grid computing may be useful for more than 5 percent of the bleeding edge. Because we dont need it, we really dont. On utility computing, Im not a big fan of it today; it doesnt mean it doesnt have a place. But its not something that I think Sybase should pursue. You have to build in something the customer wants.
Where is Sybase at with its SAP partnership?
We finally cracked the code [and convinced them that] they needed a platform beyond the Microsoft platform. Why? Because Microsoft purchases [enterprise software maker] Great Plains [Software Inc.] and wants to play in the same market.
We dont have any of those aspirations, we dont have any of those needs, we dont have any of that know-how, I dont even have half of that dream.
We finally were able to convince them we not only have the technology, but were a very stable company to work with. They like our mobile application.