IBM fires first shot in database wars

IBM has fired the first shot in the object-relational database wars at the DB/Expo trade show in New York, launching the beta version of its DB2 Universal Database.

IBM has fired the first shot in the object-relational database wars at the DB/Expo trade show in New York, launching the beta version of its DB2 Universal Database, which merges its DB2 Common Server with the high-end DB2 Parallel Edition.

The Universal Database, due out for general release in mid-1997, melds IBM object-relational database and Internet-connection technology that up to now has been available in separate software packages. It also adds new front-end tools for network and database administrators, replication capabilities, and improved links to other databases, according to IBM officials attending DB/Expo, which runs until Friday. (See Informix releases)

The various versions of DB2, along with add-on packages, have been able to handle objects and a variety of user-defined data types before major rivals such as Oracle, Informix Software and Microsoft, industry observers point out. But IBM has seen these competitors grab most of the headlines for similar technology that is just now coming to market or into beta, observers say.

IBM's object-relational database technology has been available for four years and, via the Common Server, on Intel platforms for a year and a half, according to IBM officials. Multimedia database extenders have been available for DB2 since the third quarter this year, officials say.

"With the Universal Database, IBM has a chance to put out a coherent strategic picture," says Richard Finkelstein, of the Chicago-based Performance Computing consultancy. "Its competitors, such as Oracle, have talked about object-relational technology by giving a clear picture of how it fits in with the World Wide Web -- it's been harder for IBM to do that because its database groups have reported to different managers, and the whole database development area is separate from other software divisions and the Internet group."

IBM's expo pitch for the Universal Database has been put into the context of the World Wide Web. With the proliferation of multimedia data types on the Web, companies will need industrial-strength relational databases that are also object-oriented and capable containing images, video, text and audio, say IBM officials. The Universal Database answers these requirements, officials say.

"The Internet will drive the use of object-relational database technology," says Janet Perna, a 22-year IBM veteran who was recently appointed to the newly created post of general manager of IBM data management software solutions. "But while the Internet gets the headlines, what gets the customers are the things they have always looked for -- scalability, reliability, the ability to handle a mixed workload."

The Universal Database, mixing the abilities of the DB2 Common Server Version 2.1 and the Parallel Edition Version 1.2, handles these basic, long-standing user needs by being able to handle a mixed workload -- including parallel queries, online transaction processing (OLTP), and online analysis processing (OLAP) -- on a variety of platforms ranging from single-processor, Intel-based laptops up to high-end Unix hosts, Perna says.

The Universal Database brings together the ability of the Common Server to run on a variety of Intel- and Unix-based machines -- including notebook PCs -- with the Parallel Edition's symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) and massively parallel processing (MMP) capabilities, according to Perna. The Parallel Edition currently runs on Unix-based machines.

Drawing on database code in the current versions of DB2, the Universal Database will be able to handle audio, images, text and video data. In addition, IBM will work with ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) to incorporate the ability to handle spatial co-ordinates -- used in geographic information systems, for example -- into Universal Database by its release. Meanwhile, a spatial-data extender for the current DB2 versions, called Spatial Database Engine for DB2 (SDE for DB2) is planned for release in the first quarter of 1997.

The Universal Database will also offer:

* The ability to store fingerprint information and time-series data.

* The ability to incorporate Java stored procedures, which allows developers to create database applications using the Java language.

* Integration of IBM's Net.Data software, which is currently available separately from DB2 and which allows DB2 data to be accessed from the Web via browsers.

* Bidirectional replication among different instances of the Universal Database, a feature currently available only with purchase of IBM's Data Propagator.

* The ability to connect, via the Internet protocol TCP/IP and IBM's Distributed Relational Database Architecture (DRDA) technology, to DB2 for mainframe-class servers, including those running MVS, VMA, OS/390 and OS/400 operating systems.

IBM is also planning to add easy-to-use setup tools and performance monitoring tools.

"We're using Microsoft SQL Server as a baseline for ease of use," says IBM's Perna. For example, she says, IBM is adding a job-scheduling function that will allow administrators to set up functions such as backup procedures to run automatically.

The Universal Database will run on OS/2 and Windows NT operating systems, as well as versions of Unix from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun, Siemens and SCO.

Pricing will be consistent across platforms, so that Unix users will not have to pay more than NT users, according to Perna. Current pricing for DB2 on these platforms is about US$10,000 for a two-server, 20-user configuration; pricing for the Universal Database has not yet been set, Perna says.

The new position that Perna has filled puts her in command of all IBM database development as well as related marketing efforts, she says.

"The fact that Perna has authority for all database development may help IBM put out a more coherent, compelling story," says Performance Computing's Finkelstein. The group does US$1.6 billion business a year, according to Perna.

However, IBM's expo launch of the Universal Database beta was low-key, presented to the press on a one-on-one interview basis. This is a muted first shot in the database wars, as Informix gets ready for a splashy rollout for the release of its Universal Server at the same event, in front of the press and the assembled New York investment community. And Informix's strategy for handling multimedia data types is similar to IBM's -- Informix's DataBlades, like IBM's multimedia extenders, share processing space with the core database engine. This is unlike Oracle's strategy, which connects the core Oracle relational engine to processing of multimedia objects via middleware.

Once the dust from the verbal sparring expected during DB/Expo clears, users and industry insiders will have to start measuring performance and reliability of the various object-relational offerings, analysts say. But this will take months, since Informix's Universal Server is just being released, IBM's Universal Database has up to now only been beta tested by hardware manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard and Sun, and Oracle's object-relational software is not expected until mid-1997 at the earliest.

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