The Sybase International User Group opened this week with dramatic footage of the space shuttle launching into earth orbit. This was intended to represent space travel, galaxy being the code named for Sybase?s new flagship architecture. But the conference opened on the day that Columbia?s latest mission was aborted due to the failure of core technology. Unfortunately for Sybase, the symbolism remained appropriate.
Sybase was the database success story of recent year, coming from the back of the pack to challenge Oracle with aggressive marketing and a reputation for technological innovation. But the bubble burst two years ago when the record growth figures collapsed as several of the company?s overly-ambitious technology plans fell apart. Sybase fell from grace, leaving the number two slot to Informix.
The last nine months have been a time of contemplation and restructuring for the company, under the guidance of its new chief executive Mitch Kertzman. But this week, with Informix now set to fill the seemingly essential industry role of ?database company in deep trouble?, a leaner, more focused Sybase set out to reclaim its former position with a new software architecture, a devotion to the Java religion and a pledge not to get too cocky this time.
?Nine months ago it was viable to question our long term survival,? admitted Kertzman this week. ? We had dug ourselves into a hole in the ground and it?s difficult to pole-vault out a hole sometime. You need to fill in that hole first and that?s what we?ve been doing over the past nine months. But this is the start of Sybase?s rebirth.?
The self-dug hole in which Sybase found itself centred on the critical issue that the company which had postioned itself as the technology innovator in the database field suddenly found that its next generation development tools strategy could not be made to work at roughly the same that it shipped a hugely-criticised release of its database.
And the troubles didn?t stop there. The company had become arrogant and complacent. It saw itself as the heir apparent to Oracle and focused too much of its attention on attacking the larger supplier. ?When companies break, they don?t just break in one place,? said Kertzman. ?When we hit the wall, everyone said it was a problem with System 10, which was just a badly done product. So we fixed that, but our problems didn?t go away. We had to sort out the technology, but we also had to sort out other things. Sales, support and marketing were all broken as well.?
Over the past nine months Kertzman has forced Sybase to rethink almost every aspect of its technology and its overall strategy. It has been a period during which the normally publicity hungry company has been remarkably subdued, leaving the publicity high-ground to Informix which snapped up Sybase?s former slot as number two to Oracle.
This period of relative introspection was deliberate according to Kertzman, who feared that Sybase had made too many false promises in the past and had a serious credibility problem. ?There were people in the company saying why don?t we issue more press releases and make more noise,? he said. ?But until we could show our viability and stability, nobody was going to pay attention. Look at Novell: it?s been pumping out announcements for years and nobody pays any notice to them. Anything we did before we were ready would have been marketing masturbation.?
Kertzman?s citing of Novell is appropriate as the two companies share a dubious distinction : both, along with Apple, were named earlier this year as being among the top ten worst stocks in the whole of corporate America by the CalPERS public sector pension fund, which openly questioned the firm?s ability to compete in a market which it saw as increasingly commoditised and under threat from Microsoft.
But Sybase?s financial house is now in order, insisted Kertzman, although with the company?s first quarter results due to be released next week he was unable to offer any detailed insight. ?I think by the end of this month, Sybase will be seen to be back as the number two database company,? was the most that could be coaxed from him.
On the subject of Sybase?s ability to deliver on its new technology promises, he was considerably more forthcoming. The key to the new architecture, around which the entire Sybase product line will be enhanced or redeveloped over time, is based largely on the company?s devotion to the Java religion. Sun chief executive Scott McNealy was beamed in to the conference hall to provide a video testimonial to the strength of the relationship between the two companies, an appearance which was cited as supposed proof of the purity of Sybase?s implementation of the language in its products.
First out of the Java gates is jConnect for JDBD, which Sybase claims is a 100% Pure Java implementation and makes it the first relational database supplier to provide native Java database connectivity. Gary Steele, Sybase general manager for middleware, said the product, which has been in beta since December, would enable Java to be used as a viable language for transactional business applications.
The PowerBuilder family of development tools will have a Java slant with the general availability in the second quarter of PowerJ, while the second half of the year will see Java Beans embedded in the company?s Adaptive Server database engine.
Adaptive Server is the successor to Sybase?s SQL Server database and is targetted at providing high performance and scalability for handling heavy OLTP and decision support system workloads. Adaptive Server moves beyond the relational model of SQL Server to handle more complex data types using a technology which Sybase is calling components, but which seem remarkably akin to objects. ?They?re not really objects,? insisted Kertzman. ?They?re objects that work.?
The reluctance to name these encapsulated software chunks as objects may be a cultural legacy of Sybase?s former technology strategy: until recently, the company demonstrated little or no interest in objects with some of its senior executives appearing almost anti-object in their pronouncements.
Nonetheless, with the rest of the market embracing an extended object-relational or fully object oriented approach, some degree of object inclusion was clearly essential. In common with arch rival Oracle, Sybase will incorporate Visigenic?s CORBA-based object request broker technology in its software, but before that it will be emphasising Microsoft?s rival ActiveX and DCOM standards.
?That?s to do with our former close relationship and familiarity with Microsoft,? explained Kertzman, recalling a time when Microsoft and Sybase jointly distributed SQL Server. ?We have a head start in th ActiveX world.? He added that the purity of the single-sourced Microsoft standards was appealing, whereas CORBA was a product of many companies as part of the Object Management Group.
All this technology is fine, but how can customers trust Sybase to deliver when so many of its promised products have been aborted in recent years? And is there not a danger that the company may be too late to market with some of its extended relational software. According to timelines published last week, elements of some first releases of Adaptive Server will not ship until the second half of next year, by which time Oracle and Informix?s rival products will have had over a year in the market.
In answer to such questions, Kertzman revealed one of the biggest changes that he has wrought over Sybase. Whereas the company previously prided itself on setting the technology agenda and being first to market, it now believes that there is much to be said for slow and steady and indeed for being late to market.
He cited the example of Visicalc and Lotus to illustrate his point: Visicalc was first to market with a good spreadsheet, but Lotus came later with a better one and dominated the sector. ?We have been accused of being late with our new server strategy,? he admitted. ?But we have been able to take advantage of Java which our rivals have not been able to. Being first in this kind of [extended relational architecture] is not goig to be an advantage.?
He is scathing about the rival offerings from Informix and Oracle. ?Informix is first to market with its Universal Server and for a time it looked as though being first was best,? he admitted, but cited the company?s recent sales-related profit warning as proof that it was not. ?Oracle went into its closet, rummaged around, put a lot of it on a PowerPoint slide and called it a Universal Server.?
But the bottom line remains, why should customers believe that Sybase will deliver on its promises this time around? There is a credibility issue, admitted Kertzman, but he insisted that it can be overcome. ?Many people have questioned our commitment to the database market,? concluded Kertzman. ?They point to the fact that I come from PowerSoft to argue that the tools side is more important. Sybase is a tools company and a database company and a middleware company. Sybase is a technology company.?
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