Informix took centre stage at the DB Expo trade show in New York last week for the official launch of Universal Server, the flagship object-relational database that the company hopes will make it the number one database server company by the end of the century.
Universal Server is an amalgam of Informix?s established Dynamic Scalable Architecture relational software and innovative object oriented technology acquired during its $400 million merger with Illustra last December. It extends the traditional relational model so that it can handle data types other than text and numbers, such as sound and video.
When Informix acquired Illustra a year ago, rival database suppliers and analysts cast doubt on claims by Informix chief executive officer Phil White that his company would ship a "best of both worlds" product by the end of 1996. Universal Server is built on around one million lines of DSA code and half a million lines from Illustra.
But from the end of this month, Universal Server will be available on Sun and Silicon Graphics Unix platforms. NT and other flavours of Unix will follow in the first half of next year. "Shipping as scheduled was incredibly important to us," said White. "Our competition talks about market-ectures; we talk about architectures and ship product."
At the launch Informix also announced the immediate availability of 29 DataBlades, software modules that plug into the Universal Server engine to extend its functionality and enable it to handle non-relational data types. A futher 50 DataBlades, developed by both Informix and third party suppliers, will ship early in 1997.
As well as being a main plank of the enabling technology for Universal Server, the DataBlade concept has also attracted a good deal of controversy following comments by Informix chief technology Officer, Michael Stonebraker, that under certain circumstances their use could crash the main database engine.
The danger comes when the DataBlade is sharing the same memory space as the engine and is triggered using local procedure calls. If the DataBlade is corrupted, it can bring down the engine with it. If the DataBlade does not share memory space with the engine and is triggered using remote procedure calls, this danger is avoided.
But Informix is heavily playing up the enormous performance gains that are possible with Universal Server - between 10 and 1,000 times faster than its current technology, according to the firm - and these are only possible by taking the shared memory option. Using remote procedure calls might be the safer option, but it is also slower.
Stonebraker?s candid "fast and unsafe, slow and safe" comments at a user group meeting a couple of months ago were seized upon and publicised by Oracle, whose rival Data Cartridge plug-in modules adopt the remote procedure call option. Last week in New York, the only option open to the company was to brazen it out, with Stonebraker claiming that comments such as "You can have it fast or you can have it safe" had been misquoted and taken out of context.
"Universal Server is absolutely safe," he insisted at the launch. "In three years of shipping product at Illustra, there has never been a case of corruption. DataBlades are perfectly safe." He added that it was vital when using DataBlades to ensure that they had been tested through an Informix-approved certification and quality assurance programme.
Never insert an untested DataBlade into the server, he warned, claiming that Oracle?s cartridge strategy should be considered unsafe to use until there was a certification scheme in place. "I invite Oracle to copy us on this as they have done on other things," he said.
When customers install Universal Server, they can access and download DataBlades from the Informix Web site. Online evaluation, trial usage and purchase of any commercially available and certified DataBlade should be possible in this way.
A number of early US customers and third party developers were wheeled out by Informix to substantiate the claims made for Universal Server and the DataBlade strategy. It was noticeable that the majority of these were existing Illustra customers, such as CS First Boston investment bank and electronic commerce firm GE Information Systems, but Informix plans mean they will soon be joined by their DSA counterparts.
Informix intends to bring the DSA product line and the Universal Server line together in a relatively short space of time. The current Universal Server product uses code from release 7.2 of DSA. When 7.3 is released midway through 1997, the Universal Server engine will be upgraded accordingly. By the end of 1997, there will be a single product line.
Users will have the option of using the object oriented features of Universal Server or using it as a traditional relational product without them. Informix claims that applications developed for DSA or Illustra can be migrated transparently to Universal Server.
Bruce Chavnik, vice president for consulting and services at GE Information Systems (GEIS), endorsed this claim. "As a beta user of Universal Server, we have had no problems at all, which has been a pleasant surprise to us and our database administrators," he said.
GEIS is piloting two projects on Universal Server. The first, an online image archive system called Photofinder, is an existing Informix application that is being prototyped on Illustra. The second will see GEIS using Universal Server to run an Intranet system between banks that service ATM machines.
The extent of third party applications support for Universal Server from major players in the market, such as Baan, Peoplesoft and SAP, is less clear. "They?re proceeding at their own pace," was White?s carefully worded statement. In fact, Peoplesoft and Baan both intend to support the Universal Server platform, although the timelines for product delivery are unclear. But there is a deafening silence from the SAP camp, which given its current status as the dominant financials and manufacturing applications provider is a notable omission.
With Universal Server now shipping, Informix?s attention will turn to the thorny issue of evangelising the product in the marketplace. There are no expectations that the product will be a big earner for Informix in the first half of next year.
The biggest stumbling block is the lack of available digitised content stored within organisations: there?s little point in having a database that allows you to do amazing things with digitised data types if you don?t have any to start with. "It is the biggest inhibitor to success," admitted White.
But there is also the issue of winning the mindshare war with rival companies. In the early 1990s it was widely assumed that a new generation of standalone object oriented database suppliers, such as Object Design and Ontos, would become the Oracles and Informixes of the early twenty first century, in the same way that the relational suppliers took over from the hierarchical and codasyl database vendors in the 1980s.
This thinking is now widely discredited and the pure object oriented database suppliers - with the possible exception of Object Design - largely remain as privately-held start-ups, kept afloat by Wall Street venture capitalists. The standalone object database revolution never happened.
Instead, the existing relational database companies began thinking in terms of extending the relational model to incorporate new data types such as objects. Universal Server claims to be the first of these new object relational products, with White insisting that the company has won a substantial time to market advantage over its competitors.
Oracle plans to release its object-relational Oracle8 some time next year, although continuing delays to this product, which was first announced four years ago, have earned it the label of OracleLate in the industry. Sybase, after dabbling with a costly and abortive object development project, are also working on object extensions to the relational schema.
But Informix does not have the market entirely to itself even now. IBM used DBExpo to plug DB2 Universal Database, a mulitmedia, Web-enabled product with built-in Java support, which considerably extends the range of the relational model to handle object-relational data types.
Of the leading database suppliers, only Computer Associates(CA) has taken a different tack, offering the purely object oriented Jasmine database alongside relational products such as CA-OpenIngres.
In a keynote address to DB Expo delegates - which took place at the same time as the Informix product launch, probably not entirely coincidentally - CA?s chief executive Charles Wang criticised the object-relational strategies of his competitors, which he claimed lead to compromise and limitations on the types of data that can be handed. "Object extensions mean loss of flexibility," he insisted. "You also lose semantics with the database extensions model."
Wang?s argument is that databases return data, not objects. Applications have to do the interpretation of those objects on both the client and the server. This impacts on performance as does the increasingly complex relationships between data types. "With a pure object oriented database you don?t have these limitations," he said.
In the short term, the whole object oriented database industry is likely to remain a supplier-push rather than a customer-pull market. Codasyl and hierarchical databases took a long time to die even when the relational bandwaggon was rolling, but already potential object oriented users have some clear-cut choices to make. The CA purist vision of the market is radically out of step with that proposed by Informix and Oracle.
For Informix, there is a lot riding on its object-relational view of the world winning the day. "Right now we?re number two in the database engine market," said White. "In a couple of years time we hope to be number one in open systems databases."
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