The shift towards ebusiness in Europe is forcing organisations to take a long hard look at their database suppliers to assess whether they can fulfil long-term requirements for internet-based application development.
For many years now, the database has become an increasingly commoditised and overlooked aspect of the portfolio of most of the leading database suppliers.
To corroborate this view, there is no need to look further than market leader Oracle's latest set of financial results which saw database-related licence sales increase by a mere 12 per cent year on year, compared with the massive 61 per cent growth of its applications business.
The big-name suppliers diversified their strategies long ago to explore potentially more lucrative revenue streams, one obvious reason being the clearly finite market into which they could sell new database licences. They first began to explore the application development market, then the packaged applications space.
Such efforts enjoyed mixed results depending on the vendor, with a couple of suppliers - most notably Informix and Sybase - positioning themselves at certain points as 'pure' database companies in an attempt to gain competitive advantage.
Another issue to affect the market has been vendor lock-in. Once an organisation buys into one supplier, it has traditionally been difficult and expensive to move to another.
As an example, few people chose to take Oracle up on its offer to help them migrate from Ingres or Informix when they hit financial trouble. Replacing a database, which forms a key part of the software foundation of any corporate IT infrastructure, is a challenge that few companies are ready to embrace willingly.
The net challenge
But the advent of the internet is now causing many to face up to just such a challenge as they evaluate whether their current database supplier is providing them with technology that can fully exploit the rich media and data types of the web.
They are asking pertinent questions: Is relational enough? Should vendors adopt an internet-centric architecture for their products? Could it be that Informix's much maligned object relational talk was ahead of its time, but has now found its place in the sun?
Research by analyst group Vanson Bourne suggests that to date the greatest impact the web has had on most organisations' IT infrastructures is at the application development level, with between 75 per cent and 96 per cent of future development work set to be internet-related.
But the analyst predicts that as organisations become more committed to introducing an ebusiness model, they will actively re-evaluate their choice of database supplier.
Kevin Withnall, director at Vanson Bourne, said: "We forecast that as companies move up the ebusiness spiral, then one in three will be looking at the underlying database technology to confirm that it meets their needs."
Some organisations have already begun this process. Around 40 per cent of respondents in the UK, Germany and Israel have re-evaluated their strategies compared to six per cent and 13 per cent in France and the Benelux region respectively. Of those who have undertaken such an analysis, a staggering 50 per cent found their current database to be inadequate and are altering their procurement strategy accordingly.
There are three main drivers behind such change: the need for higher levels of integration between applications; the need to build new packages faster; and the need for the finished application to perform better. These are the factors that e-database suppliers will need to emphasise in the future.
The bad news for vendors, however, is that despite attempts to position themselves as web server companies, customers simply don't believe the hype.
Almost 40 per cent of respondents said their supplier was not using technology that was optimised for web applications. In a further rebuke, some 70 per cent called on their vendors to stick to producing databases instead of being distracted by other technologies such as application development.
But the results provided some comfort for vendors. Informix, which suffered financially from the failure of its Universal Server object relational database initiative of the late 1990s, may derive some satisfaction from the idea that users are now ready to re-evaluate their database choice on the basis of its web-friendliness and ability to handle rich data types.
Oracle, which has rewritten its entire product set around an internet architecture, will, no doubt, take considerable satisfaction from the fact that users apparently recognise that relational technology alone may not be enough to fulfil their needs.
A leap of faith
Despite this, the company still needs to convince the majority of its installed base that now is the time to forget all about that nasty client-server computing and take a leap of faith.
The research polled 173 IT executives from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Finland, Israel, and the Benelux region. Respondents came from a cross-section of vertical markets, including finance, retail, freight and transportation and travel and tourism.
Some 32 per cent used Oracle, 24 per cent IBM's DB2, 13 per cent Microsoft's SQL Server, five per cent Informix and three per cent Sybase. The remaining 21 per cent used other offerings, while two per cent found their databases impossible to separate from their applications.
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