Managing big business data is big business itself

Originally published in Business in Vancouver, August 21, 2001, The high-tech office column


While most individuals needing to manage data on their personal computer either plug it into a premade personal information manager or just dump it into a spreadsheet, managing corporate data is big business.

In fact, with its self-named corporate database software, Oracle is right behind Microsoft in any list of the largest software companies, while company chair Larry Ellison is right behind Bill Gates on lists of personal wealth (and reportedly deeply resents his perennial second-place standing).

While Oracle leads with some 33 per cent of this lucrative market, IBM, with its DB2 is not far behind. Microsoft's SQL Server trails with about 15 per cent, followed by minor players Infomix (recently bought by IBM), Sybase and others.

Market-leader Oracle is widely regarded as offering the fastest product, though each company manages to trot out a set of benchmark tests revealing their offering is the best-performing. Oracle, however, has also long been the most expensive. As a result, the company accompanied its newest Oracle 9i with a new pricing structure, in order to maintain its share of this $13-billion market.

Up until that version, Oracle had been charging according to "power unit" -- the faster the server that was housing its software, the more a customer paid. Now, like IBM and Microsoft, Oracle will be charging customers per-processor. The same software, run on a quad-processor server will cost more than if it's run on a dual-processor server. Despite the changes, Oracle remains significantly more expensive than DB2 or SQL Server, though the company suggests that its product's performance and features provide added value.

While it's clear that big databases will only get bigger, the industry is in for changes. Users want to access corporate data in more and more ways: over the Web and from mobile devices such as handheld computers and even cell phones. And the data itself will be more dispersed as a result of software developments such as IBM's Web Services and Microsoft's .Net, existing on multiple computers across the network or even across the Internet.

And, of course, both IBM and Microsoft would like to have corporate buyers decide that their respective database systems are the best fit with future Web developments. All three major vendors are busy integrating XML tools into their systems so that their databases will be able to flow seamlessly into the Web. (At the same time, they are hoping to head off challenges from new products designed from the ground up around the new XML standards.)

Of the three, Microsoft offers the lowest-cost and is the easiest to use. Its SQL Server includes strong data analysis features. On technical levels such as programmability, however, it is poorly regarded.

Not surprisingly, IBM gives the best support for mainframes. The company is also doing a good job of supporting Linux, the fastest-growing server operating system, and data warehousing. Its technology does well on server clusters. DB2, however, is more complex to set up and maintain than Microsoft's SQL Server.

Oracle offers the best performance on single servers, but its new clustering features aren't as developed as IBM's. It not only is the most expensive of the big three, but also the hardest to manage. Moreover, the company's reputation for customer support has been charitably described as "inconsistent."

Managing their corporate data will remain the biggest (and most expensive) job for big business IT staff. But for the rest of us, it looks like the expanding integration of enterprise databases and the Web will make more information accessible in more ways than ever before. n

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan