The first major database to ship bundled data-analysis services was expected to pitch Microsoft against heavyweights IBM and Oracle. But IBM and Oracle squared up to Microsoft on price and features, while some users question SQL Server's suitability as a web-facing database. Gavin Clarke reports. Everyone loves a birthday party. Microsoft, the world's biggest software company, is no exception. Expect balloons and streamers next week when the giant celebrates the first anniversary of its top-line database, SQL Server 7.0. The product, launched last year at Comdex Fall, was the first database to offer integrated online analytical processing (Olap) facilities. This, combined with Microsoft's typical low price, meant that Microsoft would finally be seen as one of the top database players, along with IBM and Oracle. SQL Server 7.0 has indeed done Microsoft proud over the past 12 months. The database has established a solid footing in many major organisations, improving Microsoft's 1999 database revenues by 180%, the company says. Sales were the easy part, however. Many users remain sceptical about SQL Server's pretensions as an Internet-ready database, and some are wary of Microsoft's long-term commercial strategy. The result has been customer wins for arch-rivals IBM and Oracle, wins that Microsoft should have nabbed for itself. IBM and Oracle, meanwhile, used 1999 to entrench themselves, working on pricing and technology for their databases. This makes SQL Server's challenge for the high ground all the harder. Undaunted, Microsoft plans to celebrate its baby's anniversary in style. Major customers including ABN Amro, Dresdner Kleinwort Benson (DKB) and GlaxoWellcome are scheduled to attend a London bash to toast the database. Microsoft also plans to launch a SQL Server user group, completing its passage to corporate respectability. Take DKB, which has up to 300 users simultaneously logged on to its new SQL Server-based data warehouse. Using SQL Server 7.0 was an attractive option for DKB because the bank could use existing Microsoft developer skills in-house, it says. 'We don't have much trouble training our existing staff on SQL Server 7,' says Mark Howden, DKB's SQL Server consultant. SQL Server's price, along with familiarity, has certainly been a lure for many organisations. By using bundled Olap services, for example, departments can build data marts or warehouses much quicker and at a lower overall price than by buying a database and then separate Olap tools. Whether or not bundled tools will do the job well is another question. Microsoft is promoting this perception of value aggressively. According to one major reseller, a 25-user version of SQL Server 7.0 Enterprise Edition is priced at just £5,019, compared with £8,387 for IBM's DB2 or £29,250 for Oracle 8i. Users of 8i and DB2 also face additional charges for Olap tools. 'Bundled Olap is important,' says Jeremy Ruston, DKB's global head of IT for ecommerce. 'Projects are independently budgeted, so on an independent project level, price does matter.' SQL Server is building a following for supporting enterprise resource planning (ERP) installations. Utilities Hyder and Yorkshire Water are both running 3,000-seat-plus SAP systems on SQL Server 7.0, for example. Analysts say Microsoft's unstated but clear aim is for SQL Server to become the de facto out-of-the box product for ERP. Although SQL Server 7.0 got off to a flying start, it still faces big obstacles next year. Primarily, Microsoft needs to address concerns over scalability and robustness, especially in web configurations. Al Hilwah, research director at analyst GartnerGroup, believes that Oracle is the likely choice of web-facing database for major organisations going online, despite a few high-profile SQL Server web wins, such as bookseller Barnes & Noble's online arm. Why? Large organisations which already use Oracle simply default to Oracle because they know it works. 'The competition from (older database rivals) Sybase and Informix fizzled out,' says Hilwah. 'Oracle has a huge installed base. It's a reliable, reputable and mature platform. In the Internet age when people need quick consensus, they will go on the best they know.' Mike Norman, managing director of database consultant Makespan, says that companies realise downtime costs money, so are opting for what they trust. 'Ecommerce is happening in the next six months,' he says. 'You can do something once or you can keep re-doing it. We are coming to the end of the early adopter phase.' A key factor underpinning Oracle's buoyancy is that, like IBM's DB2, it runs on many platforms. SQL Server runs solely on NT. And despite concerted efforts from Microsoft partners 'guaranteeing' 99.99% availability for NT servers, the operating system is still not suited to many mission-critical applications. Database sales last year reflect this. Oracle and IBM's revenues for databases on Unix in 1998 dwarf those from NT-based sales. According to researcher GartnerGroup, Oracle's 1998 database sales on Unix were $1.3 billion (£800m) compared with just $555 million on NT. Take Egg, the online bank from Prudential, as an example. Egg has an £18.75 million infrastructure based on two Sun Microsystems servers running Solaris, yet it was originally NT-based. Egg says that NT would not have been able to support its higher-than-expected customer numbers. Only the promised better resilience and scalability of Windows 2000, the next version of NT which is for release on 17 February, will place SQL Server on the web front line, Hilwah says. 'The most important thing for Windows 2000 is reliability, and its ability to handle load and run multiple applications, so it doesn't fall over and doesn't have to be taken down for routine maintenance,' he says. Pricing is another thorny issue. Many software suppliers have had to introduce new 'Internet-friendly' licensing models, where databases are charged according to the power of the server rather than number of users. The problem is that the number of users is hard to calculate on the web, making it hard to price accordingly. Ironically, Microsoft's pricing structures will rob SQL Server of some of its much-vaunted cheapness. Microsoft is tipped to radically tighten up so-called use rights in the next 18 months. These include defining where copies of the software can be used legally: on site or at home for home workers, for example. Businesses will have to buy more licences even if they have not increased the physical number of end users. Microsoft's initially cheap purchase price is a mechanism for entering the market and sweeping up customers, warns Gartner senior analyst Alexa Bona. 'Do not underestimate Microsoft's ingenuity,' she says. While SQL's price differential gets eroded by Microsoft itself, the competition is hardly giving up. As Microsoft unveiled SQL Server 7.0 at last year's Comdex Fall, Oracle chairman and chief executive Larry Ellison unveiled Raw Iron, an Internet application server and database in a box. Now called The Appliance and running on Oracle 8i and Solaris, train operator Eurostar last month became its first UK customer. Simon Harrison, Eurostar technical manager, spookily echoes the usual user praise of SQL Server, saying Raw Iron offers speedy set-up by coming pre-configured with hardware and software out of the box. 'If you can do something quicker, it leaves you free to move on to something else,' he says. 'If you want to install The Appliance at a remote site, you can deliver it to that remote site and turn it on, and it can configure itself automatically.' Oracle increased the pressure last month with its .com suite: an 8i database, tools that include Jdev suite and Webdb, and a licence for 25 concurrent users of £6,295. Oracle, criticised for its premium prices, wants to increase business with Net-based startups, many of which are still losing money and cannot afford Oracle's traditional prices. IBM, meanwhile, plans to get more aggressive with DB2. Having spent the last three years working on increasing scalability and fault tolerance, the focus is now on more integrated features. In February, IBM launched an Olap server, and says its goal is to offer completely integrated Olap. Performance has also become a key issue as IBM, Oracle and Microsoft face a fresh challenge from so-called in-memory databases. In-memory holds data in cache rather than disk, so it retrieves information very quickly and avoids bottlenecks and input/output delays. Times Ten, a spin-off from Hewlett-Packard, claims that its in-memory database performs 10 times faster than an Oracle database optimised on Alpha, and is highly suited to high-impact web sites. The three-year-old company is now in talks with UK financial institutions for high-throughput sites with a high volume of traffic. Times Ten customer Checkout.com, which provides personal portals and online shopping, launched in August, originally using only Oracle. However, it has now brought Times Ten into its infrastructure so that service becomes faster. Edmond Mesrobain, Checkout.com's chief technology officer and a former vice president of technology at Disney Online, says speed is crucial to distinguish Checkout's service from other sites, and to retain customers. "The mandate was to build a site that was world class and scalable,' he says. 'Getting the data from Oracle took too long. I can use Oracle if my goal is to generate a page in 10 seconds.' Oracle says it is working to increase performance and provide quicker searches. IBM, too, says it's taking the problem seriously. In September, Big Blue unveiled its NetSearch technology, which does not write data to disk. Jeff Jones, IBM senior programme manager for data management solutions, was unable to provide benchmarks when NetSearch was attached to a search engine, but he said queries were answered 'almost instantaneously'. Jones couldn't say when NetSearch would be integrated in DB2, but added that 'we recognise the power of the Times Ten model'. Microsoft has so far refused to play ball. SQL Server development is more likely to focus on support for increased scalability and clustering rather than speed. 'There is a lot of buzz around in-memory technology, but we spoke to customers and they said they weren't interested,' says Marina Steadman, SQL Server product manager. But Microsoft cannot ignore the in-memory threat. Shopcreator, an 18-month old UK hosting business, has 400 customers and is aiming for 100,000 in the next 18 months. It uses SQL Server 7.0 on 12 servers, but is looking at in-memory technology to handle predicted long-term volume. 'We will look at throughput to see if 7.0 is getting hammered,' says Andy Kitchener, Shopcreator's managing director. So what's the verdict on a year of SQL Server 7.0? It has successfully barged into many organisations, and is beginning to underpin data warehousing and ERP strategies, as Microsoft planned. Yet key problems remain, mostly those of performance and price, and SQL Server's supposed edge as an 'out-of-the-box' product is being slowly chipped away. What is certain is that Microsoft is now truly one of the three big database players.
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