With Web 2.0, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and open source grabbing all the headlines, launches of enterprise infrastructure software that were once major IT events now sometimes seem like forgotten affairs. Certainly the new millennium marked a downturn in interest in traditional, monolithic back-end software.
Yet, boosted by virtualisation, there appears to be plenty of life in old-school offerings. According to its 2007 global IT market forecast, analyst firm IDC predicts that spending on infrastructure software will grow 9% this year, faster than any other software category.
In this 'diminished' environment, Oracle's pending release of its upgraded 11g database may not grab the imagination of the technorati, but it remains significant to a vastly underestimated group of IT users.
The global database market grew 14.2% last year to total US$15.2 billion (NZ$19.4 billion), according to analyst firm Gartner.
Oracle, which released its last major database upgrade, 10g, four years ago, already holds almost half the market. That's more than double the share of second-place IBM.
The official launch of 11g is set for Wednesday, in a New York City ceremony that will be overseen by Oracle president Charles Philips.
Publicly, Oracle has for the most part avoided specifics, saying that 11g will offer improvements in high availability, performance, scalability and manageability.
Tidbits it has revealed include free migration and management tools that will let administrators oversee non-Oracle databases at the same time they manage their Oracle ones. Oracle has also said that 11g will have new compression technology that could potentially reduce customers' storage demands by two-thirds, the ability to store unstructured data faster than traditional file systems, and better partitioning.
Web accounts by beta testers and others are now confirming those reports.
According to what appears to be a presentation by Oracle vice-president of technology Mark Townsend, many of the new features are in the area of "change assurance".
These help companies save money and testing time when migrating to new hardware or making configuration changes.
For instance, features such as database replay and SQL replay let database administrators view how changes in the database or SQL code affect performance. 11g will also let users set up test environments using snapshot standbys and help automate rolling database upgrades.
Other features include online table and index redefinition, support for online hot patching and continuous availability of online applications even when they are in the middle of an upgrade, and automatic diagnostic workflow to fix problems faster.
In the area of information lifecycle management (ILM), 11g will allow database administraors for the first time to partition by interval, ref, or virtual column. It also adds a new composite way to partition.
According to an article by Jim Czuprynski, an Oracle senior instructor at Fujitsu Consulting who beta-tested 11g, some of the best new features include in-memory caches for retaining widely used, slow-changing data; better diagnosis and repair features; and enhancements to Oracle's flashback tools for data recovery.
Long-time Oracle watcher Donald Burleson notes in his list of 11g features support for schema-based Document Type Definitions for describing the internal structure of XML documents, as well as more scalable Java for faster performance.
On security, an area for which Oracle has been criticised of late, Burleson says 11g will include improvements such as case-sensitive passwords and an inviolable audit vault that protects against insider threats.
Iggy Fernandez, editor of the NoCOUG Journal, the official newsletter for the Northern California Oracle Users Group, praises what he says is 11g's unheralded "learning optimiser" feature.
"When relational databases replaced hierarchical and network databases in the 1980s, the promise was that programmers would no longer need to optimise their queries by hand," says Fernandez. While no database has "completely realised" that vision, 11g, says Fernandez, is a "great step — the query optimiser simply learns from its mistakes. In fact it can stop a query that is already in progress and try a different approach!"
"Performance tuning is the biggest component of database administration effort today and the learning optimiser could produce tremendous labour savings if it works as advertised," Fernandez says.
With 11g, a major question is whether Oracle will be able to extend its lead over IBM by convincing users to rush and upgrade.
Kevin Closson, chief software architect for clustering vendor Polyserve, says yes, based on how stable this release already is known to be.
"From everything I've seen in this release there should be no technical reasons holding back customers' adoption," Closson writes in his blog.
But Amy Stuemky, database administrator for travel tour operator Globus, says her organisation is just starting to move its 50 Oracle databases to 10g.
"Our philosophy with Oracle is that it is too bleeding-edge to with any first release," Stuemky says. And the company is only moving now because Oracle's regular support, called "Premier Support" (PDF format), is about to end.
"Oracle almost pushes you [to upgrade] by desupporting its stuff," she says.
NoCOUG Journal's Fernandez agrees that expecting users to rush to 11g any faster than they did with prior versions would be unrealistic.
"There is just too much effort involved in testing and upgrading critical business systems and new releases can be plagued with software bugs," he says. "Speaking for myself, I would prefer Oracle to fix the bugs that still remain in the previous version instead of [giving] us a feature-packed new version!"
Oracle will go slow with one aspect of 11g. For its free Express Edition (XE), aimed at students and developers, which it debuted in 2005, the company won't release an upgrade until the more stable 11g R2 comes out, according to an Austrian developer, Slavojub Krishan, who cited conversations with Oracle executives at a recent developer conference.