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-- by Tom Henderson
You may get only one chance to select a relational database management system (RDBMS) for your Windows NT servers. Deploy the wrong one, and you could end up trying to quell a revolution among users and in-house software developers. Trip up badly enough, and you may be shown the door.
Fortunately, makers of relational databases are falling over each other to support NT Server, the industry's fastest-growing database platform. Market research firms, including The Gartner Group and International Data Corp., say NT database sales are doubling annually (see chart, opposite page). That's hardly a surprise, since NT is emerging as the de facto application server in small businesses and is often found working side by side with more scalable UNIX systems in larger organizations. The first killer database for NT Server was Microsoft's own SQL Server. Now, IBM, Informix, Oracle and Sybase, to name just a few companies, are seeking to lure you away from the Microsoft fold with attractive alternatives.
Since no single database is perfect for all NT enterprises, it's important to create a checklist of priorities when evaluating your database needs. The list of capabilities you might want to consider include:
Universal databases: It's the mantra of the moment. Universal databases manage binary large objects (BLOBs), which include everything from flat-file documents to audio cuts and full-length movies. Although only a few practical uses for universal database servers have been found (see chart, "Uses for Universal Database Servers"), your need for universal database capabilities could grow as multimedia content development increases.
Clustering: By linking two or more servers together, clustering software can bolster database reliability and performance through application load balancing. When one clustered database server fails, desktop users are transparently moved to a secondary database server. Most NT database vendors have pledged to support Microsoft Cluster Server (MSCS) as well as third-party clustering gear from Digital Equipment Corp. and Tandem.
OLAP and ROLAP: Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) and Relational OLAP (ROLAP) are generally used for multidimensional business analysis, data warehousing and data mining. For instance, OLAP lets you do trend analysis of sales figures. By contrast, ROLAP takes multidimensional objects (such as sales over time) and, in turn, presents virtual views of the data.
ODBC and JDBC: Few database products use proprietary communications links today, thanks to Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) and, to a lesser extent, Java Database Connectivity (JDBC). ODBC is a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that provide transparent data access to relational databases. The original ODBC standard, pioneered by Microsoft, was hardly impressive. But ODBC enhancements from relational database makers have eased communications between client requests and server replies. JDBC, the Sun Microsystems-sponsored alternative to ODBC, is still in its infancy. However, some relational database makers (particularly Oracle) hope to offer JDBC support that leapfrogs ODBC.
ISAPI and NSAPI: These two Web server database connectivity methods differ philosophically and pragmatically. Internet Server API (ISAPI) from Microsoft connects server-side scripting via Java or Active Server Pages to spawn queries to relational database servers. Netscape Communications Corp.'s Netscape Server API (NSAPI) divides server resources into transactions that can effectively share resources.
SMP support: Although symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) support is inherent in NT Server 4.0, some NT databases have a CPU ceiling that is lower than NT itself. In other words, a database that only scales to four processors will need refinement for a six- or eight-processor NT server.
Replication: There are parallel servers (Oracle), synchronous/asynchronous replication strategies (Sybase and IBM) and multimaster (Microsoft SQL Server) implementations of replication. Comparing specific vendor strategies for data replication and multiserver replication takes time, but it can pay handsomely in terms of efficient operations.
Long live the king
Traditionally, when shopping for relational databases, NT administrators have knocked on Microsoft's door. But in recent months, more and more NT customers have been flocking to relational databases from Oracle.
Microsoft SQL Server commands about 40 percent of the NT database market, according to The Gartner Group, but Oracle is gaining ground quickly. Gartner says Oracle's share of NT database sales skyrocketed from 8 percent in 1994 to 35 percent in 1997 (see chart "Closing the Gap")
There are three reasons for the Oracle/NT sales surge. First, many customers already use Oracle 7.3 on back-end UNIX servers, making Oracle 7.3 for NT a complementary choice for departmental servers. Second, Oracle always develops its products first for NT and Sun Microsystems' Solaris. (Some database competitors, such as Informix, deliver UNIX support first and add NT support sometime later.) Finally, Oracle has formed an NT marketing department to aggressively promote its NT products (see http://www.oracle.com/NT)
Oracle's NT strategy goes beyond savvy marketing. It includes leading-edge technology that supports Java, network computers and Netscape servers, as well as highly clustered server environments that Microsoft has so far failed to address.
At press time, Oracle was putting the finishing touches on its next-generation Oracle8 database. The upgrade aims to support applications of any size and will offer new object-oriented capabilities as well as OLAP and ROLAP features. Still, most Oracle shops are expected to stay the course with tried-and-true Oracle7 Server (an enterprise version of Oracle 7.3 that costs about $37,500 for 25 users), Oracle7 Workgroup Server (a department version of Oracle 7.3 that costs about $7,500 for 25 users) or Oracle Universal Server (a suite of Oracle 7.3 options that support video, Web services, enterprise management, data searches, electronic mail and advanced networking). Prices vary for the Universal Server components.
If scalability and reliability are your primary concerns, it's hard not to choose Oracle7 Server, which includes bidirectional replication features and other enhancements not found in the Oracle7 Workgroup Server. Moreover, the company has an Oracle Parallel Server option that offers true load balancing across multiple NT servers. Microsoft SQL Server won't support load balancing (via MSCS) until sometime next year. Another Oracle7 Server option, called Oracle Fail Safe, is based on MSCS and provides fail over between two Oracle/NT servers. More than a dozen hardware and interconnect vendors, from Compaq to Unisys, have integrated their products with Oracle Parallel Server and Oracle Fail Safe.
Like Microsoft, Oracle has inked a scalability partnership with Digital. The Oracle/Digital agreement, known as the Alliance for Networked Applications, ensures that Oracle's various databases are ported to Digital's Alpha processors, which run NT and Digital UNIX. Like Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle's NT/Alpha databases are expected to support 64-bit data addressing shortly after NT 5.0 arrives next year.
If you're on a tight budget but need enterprise features, Oracle's various scalability offerings could be out of your price range. Another potential drawback: Most NT administrators consider Oracle's databases more difficult to install and configure than Microsoft SQL Server. Consequently, Oracle7 Workgroup Server will be hard-pressed to compete with SQL Server in small businesses. However, Oracle has beaten Microsoft to the scalability punch, making Oracle7 Server an ideal choice for enterprise accounts.
Microsoft SQL Server
As you might expect, Microsoft's SQL Server team is preparing an NT offensive of its own. The team is seeking to complement SQL Server's ease-of-use features with enhancements that bolster scalability and reliability.
The first step is delivering Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 Enterprise Edition. Slated for release this fall, it's an MSCS-enabled upgrade that will support up to eight processors and 3GB of application memory. SQL Server's current performance ceiling is roughly four processors and 2GB of memory.
Though promising, SQL Server 6.5 Enterprise Edition is merely a placeholder until SQL Server 7.0 arrives in early 1998. Code-named Sphinx, SQL Server 7.0 will have a completely rewritten query processor and tight integration with Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) and Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS). Using Sphinx and MTS in tandem will create a software solution that is more powerful "than the sum of their parts," according to Microsoft.
The basic page size (the lowest common denominator of memory blocks) has also changed in SQL Server 7.0, so that BLOBs and data warehouses can track large physical and virtual objects.
For added reliability, Microsoft is designing a multimaster database method that replicates data across multiple servers. When a SQL Server 7.0 database fails, user connections will be moved to an alternative database (similar, in some respects, to MSCS) without transactional integrity problems.
SQL Server 7.0 will offer limited universal database functionality. This will be achieved by separating SQL Server's query engine from the database store. Next, OLE DB will offer connectivity between the engine and store, allowing SQL Server to query multimedia databases and Exchange Server.
SQL Server 7.0 also is expected to offer OLAP and ROLAP support, thanks to technology Microsoft acquired last year from Panorama Software Systems of Tel Aviv, Israel.
That's good news for NT administrators, but SQL Server 7.0 won't silence all of Microsoft's critics. Unlike Oracle, Microsoft hasn't addressed parallel processing and won't offer application load balancing across clustered NT servers until another MSCS release, known as Wolfpack Phase Two, ships sometime next year.
Analysts say SQL Server's scalability shortcomings should raise a red flag within top-tier enterprise networks but are hardly cause for concern within most departmental networks. The database's ease of use, comparatively low cost and tight integration with IIS make it an ideal choice for most NT shops.
Microsoft and Oracle command the lion's share of the NT database market, but both companies have a new NT predator to worry about. After successful runs in the mainframe and UNIX arenas, IBM has expanded its DB2 database strategy to include NT. In fact, DB2 2.1.2 (about $2,999 for 25 users) is the first non-Microsoft database to carry the "Designed for Microsoft BackOffice" logo, which ensures tight integration with NT.
The next DB2 release, called IBM DB2 Universal Database 5.0, should ship this month. Beta releases of the database include four "extenders" that let you store and manage text, image, audio and video data. As a major proponent of Java, IBM's DB2 upgrade supports JDBC and includes tools that help you create Java applets for IIS and Netscape Enterprise Server.
IBM has paid close attention to improving DB2's ease of use. Most beta testers have been very impressed with the database's revamped Control Center interface, which includes SmartGuides (resembling Microsoft's wizards) that let you adjust DB2's performance. "We're giving DB2 for NT a Windows look and feel," says Jocelyne Attal, VP of NT marketing at IBM.
IBM is also keenly focused on DB2's scalability. While it's doubtful that DB2 will ever run on powerful Alpha/NT servers (which compete with IBM's AIX servers), DB2 for NT will support parallel processing and MSCS this fall.
As of press time, IBM had not disclosed the price of DB2 Universal Server 5.0 for NT and wouldn't say whether the parallel processing capabilities will carry an additional charge. Whatever the case, IBM is making its presence felt in the NT database market. Though DB2 for NT won't support application load balancing until Wolfpack Phase Two arrives in 1998, it should meet the needs of most NT administrators, particularly those who are standardizing on IBM's various NT server suites.
Database dark horses
While IBM, Oracle and Microsoft are evangelizing and enhancing their respective NT databases, two UNIX database veterans-Sybase and Informix-are struggling to break out of their respective funks.
After releasing buggy database code in 1994, Sybase is striving to regain momentum with UNIX customers and affirm its commitment to NT. Ironically, the company helped Microsoft get its start in the relational database market by partnering on SQL Server for OS/2, which was later ported to NT.
After the Sybase/Microsoft partnership dissolved earlier this decade, Sybase aggressively branched out into the tools market by merging with Powersoft.
The Sybase/Powersoft merger has yielded mixed results. "Sybase has lost focus as a database player," asserts Betsy Burton, a research director at The Gartner Group. "Its UNIX database revenue is eroding, but tools sales are growing stronger. Their major issue is choosing an identity as a database or tools provider."
Sybase begs to differ. The company says its cross-platform strategy, known as the ImpactNow Adaptive Component Architecture, makes it an ideal vendor for UNIX and NT shops seeking database platforms, Powersoft's PowerBuilder and Java development tools, and Web site connectivity.
Like many Java vendors, Sybase says its "write once play many" architecture lets you port thick or thin client/server code to multiple Sybase and non-Sybase platforms.
Sybase is also enhancing its core SQL Server database products. The latest, Sybase SQL Server Professional (about $5,870 for 25 users), includes NetImpact Dynamo for building and managing Web sites; SQL Modeler for database design and construction; SQL Central for graphics administration; and InfoMaker for query and reporting.
Sybase also is developing message queue software called dbQ that will foster reliable asynchronous communications between its database servers. It's somewhat similar to Microsoft's new Message Queue Server and should ship this fall. A free trial version of dbQ is available at http://www.sybase.com/products/internet/dbq/dbqreg.html.
Despite these enhancements, it's unclear just how high Sybase wants to scale its NT database. For instance, Sybase has been remarkably quiet about its clustering plans. The company considers Sybase SQL Server Professional for NT a "workgroup" solution, and positions its higher-end SQL Server 11 database mainly as an enterprise solution for UNIX (though it is available for NT)
If you're sold on PowerBuilder, then Sybase SQL Server Professional might be an ideal back-end database for your business. But most NT shops will likely prefer buying SQL Server directly from Microsoft, rather than "the other NT SQL Server" from Sybase.
Sybase isn't the only database giant struggling to deal with NT. Just ask Informix Software. The company was once considered Oracle's strongest rival but has fallen on hard times because of two strategic blunders: It overhyped new universal database technology (dubbed Informix-Universal Server) and failed to aggressively target NT shops.
"Informix just didn't get serious about NT until this year," says Gartner's Burton, "and that's two years too late."
Seeking a late-inning rally, Informix is shoring up its NT database offerings and inking NT partnerships with leading hardware and software companies-including Microsoft.
Later this year, Informix will attempt to bolster its NT database bid with Universal Server, an object-relational database that has been available for UNIX since last December. Universal Server for NT was originally scheduled for release last winter, but its delivery was delayed because of coding difficulties.
Despite being a technical marvel, Informix-Universal Server sales have been sluggish on UNIX, and it's unclear if NT support will jump-start demand. Many customers say they don't need universal database features yet and are instead opting for traditional relational databases.
Which brings us back to Informix's OnLine Workgroup Server database. It's solid technology for traditional UNIX shops, but the NT market is proving tougher to crack. As Informix CEO Phil White recently conceded, "We may have lost momentum as a result of [an] overemphasis on emerging object-relational technology, and the lack of corporate focus on our NT products and their price/performance benefits."
For NT administrators, that's not exactly a comforting statement.
Choosing a relational NT database can be a daunting task, but you should take comfort in knowing that most database vendors are now focused on the Microsoft operating system. Microsoft wants to push NT and SQL Server right into the enterprise, while competitors such as IBM and Oracle consider NT a lower-end "extension" of their UNIX and mainframe software.
Only you can decide which NT database will serve your business best, but here are some general guidelines: Oracle7 Server (thanks to its various scalability options) warrants strong consideration from top-tier enterprise NT shops, particularly if they're already running Oracle on UNIX. Microsoft SQL Server remains the ease-of-use champ for departmental networks and small businesses, but DB2 is closing the gap quickly. Finally, Sybase and Informix offer quality products for UNIX, but both companies could certainly learn a thing or two from Oracle and IBM, which are proving that it is possible to compete against Microsoft on NT.
SIDEBAR: Uses for Universal Database Servers
Line of Business: Financial/Insurance
Opportunity: Derivative calculation, quantitative-model scaling, actuarial tables, currency conversion
Line of Business: Manufacturing
Opportunity: Bill-of-materials explosion, economic order quantity computation
Line of Business: Health Care
Opportunity: Treatment coding hierarchies, image and document management
Line of Business: Data Warehouses
Opportunity: Aggregates, time series, business-model-based data mining
Line of Business: Sales and Marketing
Opportunity: Geographical, spatial and demographic data, customized multimedia demos
Line of Business: Entertainment Industry
Opportunity: Querying videotape archives, retrieving live-broadcast material for immediate playback, supporting pay-per-view
Line of Business: Security
Opportunity: Monitoring video cameras for changing patterns
Line of Business: Pharmaceutical
Opportunity: Molecular modeling, computational chemistry
Line of Business: Communications
Opportunity: Parsing telephone numbers, decoding IP addresses
Source: Aberdeen Group
SIDEBAR: NT Relational Database Offerings
Vendor: Microsoft Corp. 800-426-9400 206-882-8080 Winfo #552
Product/Price: Microsoft SQL Server 6.5, $3,999*
Summary: Still the easiest NT relational database to install, making it ideal for small- to medium-sized businesses. But SQL Server can't match Oracle7's clustering features.
Events to Watch: SQL Server 6.5 Enterprise Edition (with cluster support) should ship this fall. SQL Server 7.0 (with improved replication and row-level locking) should ship in early 1998.
Vendor: Oracle Corp. 800-ORACLE1 415-506-7000 Winfo #553
Product/Price: Oracle7 Server, $37,500*; Oracle7 Workgroup Server, $7,500*
Summary: Oracle7 Server includes bidirectional replication features not found in the workgroup edition. Also, enterprise options like Oracle Parallel Server don't work with the workgroup edition.
Events to Watch: Oracle8 (with new object-oriented features), Oracle Parallel Server and Oracle Fail Safe should be available before summer's end.
Vendor: IBM Corp. 800-IBM-3333
Product/Price: DB2 2.1.2, $2,999*
Summary: The first third-party RDBMS to earn the "Designed for Microsoft BackOffice" logo. DB2 is a rising star in the NT market.
Events to Watch: A major upgrade, DB2 Universal Database 5.0, and parallel processing support will arrive this fall.
Vendor: Sybase 800-8-SYBASE 510-922-3555 Winfo #554
Product/Price: Sybase SQL Server Professional, $5,870*; Sybase SQL Server 11, $5,870*
Summary: Sybase offers excellent database development tools, but the company's NT databases are known as "the other" SQL Servers on NT.
Events to Watch: Message queue software called dbQ will offer reliable asynchronous communications between database servers. It was in beta release at press time.
Vendor: Informix Software 800-331-1763, 415-926-6300 Winfo #555
Product/Price: Informix-OnLine Dynamic Server 7.2, $37,500*; Informix-OnLine Workgroup Server 7.12, $7,375
Summary: Even Informix's CEO admits the company needs to improve its focus on NT databases. Informix Universal Server for NT has been delayed several times.
Events to Watch: Tandem and Informix are creating ServerWare SQL, a massively parallel database for NT. Availability has not been disclosed.
* Estimated price for one server and 25 clients.