It has become fashionable in recent years to dismiss relational database management systems (RDBMS) as near commodity products.
The trend is one that has been implicitly encouraged by the likes of Oracle, which these days resists being referred to as a database company, preferring instead to be seen as an applications provider, a software firm or an internet company depending on the prevailing wind of the wider industry.
Other suppliers too have focused their attentions on other aspects of their product lines. Database licence revenues have fallen dramatically, partly as a result of Microsoft's pricing policies with its SQL Server offering, which have driven down costs.
But the situation has also been compounded by Oracle giving its 8i database away to developers, while IBM on occasions embeds its DB2 Universal Database (UDB) into lower-cost application suites.
Oracle's recent launch of its internet File System (iFS) product, however, marks what could be a renaissance for RDBMSs and the start of a whole new round of the relational database wars. And analyst firm Illuminata believes that the resurgence in demand for databases is a reality and not simply a piece of vendor-driven hype.
During the 1990s, the influence of the data centre waned as individual departments, such as business divisions or marketing, were given their own budgets and began to make their own IT purchases. The inevitable result was that overall costs rose, and the role of the IT department was reduced effectively to one of fire-fighting and trying to hold together an increasingly fragmented technology infrastructure.
But this is now changing. James Governor, an analyst at Illuminata, and the author of new report entitled 'iFS: File IT Under Consolidation', said: "iFS clearly illustrates that the data centre is finally regaining the upper hand in the ferocious political battle that has been raging since the likes of Oracle came on the scene. Political battles are always about power, and at the bottom of this struggle lies the question, 'Who owns the data?'."
The players in the original database wars of the 1980s and 1990s are now largely displaced, however. Ingres is part of the Computer Associates empire, Informix has emerged shell-shocked from the traumatic experiences of its self-inflicted financial crisis, while Sybase has effectively relegated itself to the ranks of a specialist database provider rather than a one-time pretender to the throne.
Today, the line-up in the front ranks of the database market consists of Oracle, IBM and the suddenly threatening Microsoft. In this context, the ambitions of Larry Ellison, Oracle's chief executive, for iFS are highly significant. Oracle is positioning iFS as a replacement to the Windows File System, which has been built into Microsoft's Windows operating system.
iFS essentially moves data storage from a PC's hard drive to back-end servers on a network. Having a file system built into the database will, according to Ellison, mean that the software can offer better and faster search capabilities than standard operating systems. There is, of course, no question as to which particular standard operating system he is referring.
"I think this is an enormous threat," said Ellison. "I would think that Microsoft should be concerned. If people start moving information willy-nilly out of the file system, it dramatically decreases the value of Windows. If you move from Microsoft's file system to Oracle's file system, you won't be able to tell. It's identical."
Embrace, extend, extinguish
This last remark is highly telling. Oracle is cheekily employing Microsoft's own tried and tested E3 strategy in its bid to drive iFS into Redmond-dominated accounts. E3 stands for embrace, extend, extinguish - the three tactics that Microsoft uses to gain control of different markets.
First embrace someone else's idea, extend it with proprietary extensions, then, once customers are hooked on those extensions, wipe out the competition. "It's a classic case of the biter bit," said Illuminata's Governor. "Oracle's commitment to hurt Microsoft is illustrated by the fact that iFS is free to existing Oracle 8i users."
This is a tactic straight out of Microsoft's E3 handbook: "The best way to gain entry into an installed base is with freeware." iFS also supports the current industry trend towards server consolidation, which IBM and Microsoft have also both picked up on with the latest releases of their products.
DB2 UDB is a database for storing multimedia and business object data and is a far cry from the lumpy mainframe software of old. And the inclusion of technology such as Intellimirror in SQL Server 7.0 makes it clear that server consolidation was not far from the minds of Microsoft developers, at least latterly.
As a result, IBM and Microsoft are unlikely to take Ellison's latest turf war lying down. IBM is set to launch DB2 UDB version 7.1, which will support the company's core strategy of ensuring that the database can manage just about any data regardless of where it is stored. IBM's Lotus division is also tipped to be working on an iFS of its own, the Domino Network File Store.
But there are fundamental philosophical differences between IBM's and Oracle's strategies. "IBM's strategy is largely pragmatic, driven by user requirements rather than an anti-Microsoft sentiment," said Governor.
"DB2 is a database engine, not an application server. IBM's goal is to ensure that all data can be managed from a central point, whether located there or not. IBM describes this as a 'federated approach', a slower path to full consolidation," he added.
Microsoft's response is to offer tighter integration between SQL Server 7.0 and Office 2000. It is also enabling Access 2000 applications to connect directly to SQL Server using OLE DB rather than their native Jet engine.
But Illuminata argues that there are still too many question marks over the scalability and availability of Microsoft's offering for most enterprises to consider it as a serious contender to be the central repository for their crucial business data.
But such an argument actually plays into Microsoft's hands. The last thing it wants is users coming to the conclusion that adopting IBM and Oracle's centralised repository approach might be viable. Governor's conclusion is simple: the days of free range server proliferation are over.
"The old corporate war horses are ready for battle again," he warned. "For software giants like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft, RDBMSs are not a commodity. They are an important source of competitive differentiation. Users should look at them in the same way."
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