Anyone ever seen the sketch where comedians Rob Newman and David Baddiel, playing squabbling history professors, descend from intellectual debate to childish name calling? You could be forgiven for experiencing a curious sense of deja vu at the Database and Client Server World 'Great Debate' in Boston this week.
The two protagonists were Informix' chief technology officer, Michael Stonebraker, and Oracle?s senior vice president of server technologies, Jerry Held, and the subject was the new breed of Universal Server databases. But the comparison with the Newman and Baddiel characters became increasingly apt as thinly maintained civility quickly gave way under the strain. By the end, had either man declared: "That pile of dung over there, that?s your Universal Server that is!", few in the audience would have been surprised.
Ostensibly the meeting between the two technologists was intended to highlight and possibly reconcile some of the differences in their respective companies' database products. Although both are known as Universal Server,they are fundamentally different in their approach to data management. The debate kicked off with both men asked to define what a Universal Server is in under two minutes.
Held?s reponse centred on his assertion that he had coined the phrase in September 1995 at the time of the release of Oracle 7.3. Universal Server is a self explanatory term, he claimed - It?s a server product that allows end users to manage many different types of data, whether text, video, audio, objects or whatever.
"We?re moving from an era where these types were handled by speciality databases to one where we have general purpose databases," he said. "A universal server gives the user the ability to have one product."
Oracle?s Universal Server is a relational product - object extensions will be added with next month?s scheduled release of Oracle8 - whereas Informix applies the name to its object-relational product. Held argued that the emphasis on objects was misleading: "[A universal server] is not just about object-relational technology. Too many people equate universal servers with object-relational."
As someone whose definition of a universal server is based entirely on that premise, Stonebraker was quick to get the gloves off. "Jerry has got it all wrong," he pronounced. "A universal server is an object-relational engine that is able to support anything. What Oracle means by universal server is just a small subset of what Informix means by it."
Stonebraker outlined the two companies' views as he saw them. He argued that Oracle believes there are about 10 key complex data types that most end users will need to use, and that these types can be embedded in the database engine itself. Informix' view is that specialist data types are best catered for in software components called Datablades, which are plugged into the kernel of the engine as and when they are needed. In this way, Informix believes it can cater for a far greater variety of data types and applications.
But who needs it? demanded Held. Informix, he claimed, was basing its technology strategy around the idea of catering for niche markets, while Oracle had a wider obligation. "Our job is to take the mainstream market forward and not leave them behind," he argued, insisting that what Stonebraker dismissed out of hand as a lowest common denominator approach was most appropriate for the market leader?s customers.
From here on in, the two men began to snipe increasingly at one another. Stonebraker derided Oracle?s ability to meet product release date commitments. "It?s important to remember that Oracle has difficulty in not mixing up the present and the future tenses," he said. "They say they?ll do something next year. Oracle8 has been coming ?next year? since 1992!"
Held in turn insisted that all Oracle server products have shipped on schedule since he assumed responsibility for them and furthermore had shipped as full releases on all Oracle-supported platforms. In contrast, Informix? Universal Server is still on limited platform availability despite its high profile launch late last year. "We ship full production releases, unlike that thing you said you?d shipped last December."
Ultimately it was all downhill. "I heard Oracle was going to have a bad quarter," declared Stonebraker, a somewhat brazen claim from a senior executive at a company that has just reported a quarterly loss of $140.1 million. Held chose not to reply to that one, but got his revenge a few minutes later when Stonebraker produced a shameless plug for his latest book. "He probably needs the royalties to make up for the last quarter," he laughed.
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