THE DATABASE WARS

Till some time ago, software
that manage enterprise-
wide data was known mostly by the convoluted acronym RDBMS for relational database management system or more generally DBMS. The RDBMS business was relatively low on hype that surrounded other software like operating systems and to take a more recent example-net browsers. This, however, has changed rapidly in the past few years as businesses adapt to the information age and learn to leverage that information to gain competitive advantage.
ERP, ecommerce and all other buzzwords one hears today depend on datamining or
datawarehousing. In such an environment, sophisticated database software takes
centerstage. All of a sudden ‘Oracle’ and ‘SQL’ have become generic terms.

The market hotted up with the launch of Microsoft’s latest database product-SQL Server 7-late last year. SQL seems to be the first database product from the Redmond giant that seems to threaten Oracle Inc’s supremacy in the database market. Close on the heels, Oracle unveiled its ‘database for internet computing’-Oracle 8i-in February. Apparently, each company claims that its product has advantages over the other. And so for the SMEs or large enterprises planning to implement or upgrade to a more capable database, it has become increasingly difficult to cut through the hype and choose what best suits their needs.

In fact, in the midst of the SQL 7 vs 8i debate, it’s easy to miss out on other options like IBM’s DB2. “The database market has seen its ups and lows. Vendors coming up and then sinking without a trace. There was a time when Sybase and Informix were big. But if you notice, in the background it’s been Oracle and IBM consistently. Oracle has been on the lines of Microsoft-playing more on hype, big on publicity, while IBM has had a more traditional approach,” says Vanit
Arora, Country Marketing Manager (IBM Software), Tata IBM. IBM is the only player which is capable of threatening both Microsoft and Oracle. Worldwide, according to Gartner Group’s Dataquest, IBM ended 1998 with 32.3% market share, up from 28.9% in 1997. While Oracle’s share fell marginally from 29.4% to 29.3%. The same report also showed Informix and Sybase lose market share. The worldwide market which was estimated to be worth $7.1 billion in 1998, is expected to hit $10 billion by the year 2003.

In India, however, Oracle is the leader by far. In 1997-98, Oracle had a market share of 60% by value of shipments, followed by sybase second with 18% and Microsoft with 7%. In 1998-99, Microsoft has improved its share to 19% and Oracle has lost share at 58%. In conformity with the worldwide trends, Sybase is losing market share in India as well. IBM’s DB2 in India has a small installed base in the government and is the DBMS package of choice for private banks. However, DB2’s government market share is likely to fall in the wake of Microsoft tying up with the National Informatics Center
(NIC). The sale of DB2 is intrinsically tied with the sale of the AS/400 systems and System 390 mainframes. The RDBMS market in the country grew from Rs43.7 crore in 1997-98 to Rs59.0 crore in 1998-99 and is expected to be worth Rs75 crore by the year 2000-01, growing at a CAGR of 34.5%.

Technologically speaking


If the only consideration was sheer reliability and scalability, which database product would one choose? Oracle, IBM, Informix and Sybase all have been in the business much longer than Microsoft and from that stems a technological lead. Features like row-level locking, multi-terabyte capacity, replication and increased scalability which Microsoft is touting in SQL 7.0 have been there in its competitors’ products for years. The fact that SQL 7.0 has poor support for clustering and no large table partitioning further shows that it has some way to go. However, apart from the hype, perseverance characterizes Microsoft. SQL Server 7.0 is more of a contender than its previous version (6.5) ever was.

Oracle officials use the technology argument for dismissing SQL 7.0 as not ‘comparable’ to Oracle 8. “SQL 7 is more equal to something like Oracle 6 (1988) or 7 (1991). On a feature basis, it’s impossible to compare the two (8i and SQL 7.0), they are in two different leagues. Having said that, there is nothing that Microsoft likes more than having the media, who don’t really understand these issues, explicitly comparing the two products. It’s making their product look better than it actually is,” says Stephen
Faris, Director, Product Planning and Sales (South Asia Region), Oracle Corp. Faris was in India to talk about ‘state of the database’ soon after Microsoft launched SQL 7.0.

However,
Faris’ views about the media comparing the two databases seems to be inconsistent with the content on his company’s website
(www.oracle.com). The site not only has a comparison between the two products, but their is also a quiz with prizes on offer and an image of a large, brutish Oracle 8i pulverizing a puny SQL 7.O in a boxing ring! “People are asking the question, we are providing the answer,” says Farris when asked about the site.

Sanjiv
Mathur, Marketing Manager, Microsoft (India) Pvt Ltd, and point man for SQL Server in India, begs to differ with Faris on the technology issue. “The Oracle engine is years old and if you put a lot of things on top, it just makes it a layered product and creates problems for people who have to manage all the new things in a layered product.” Adding another twist to the slugfest, Arora says, “Microsoft SQL Server is essentially a bought out product. It was Sybase, which they claim to have rewritten to a large degree. But if your foundation itself is borrowed, how much can you rewrite on top of it? It still has its limitations. Microsoft’s style is typically consumer friendly, but if you look at a mission-critical scenario in the enterprise, they’re still not there. The NT platform itself does not scale up to that level.”

As far as cross-platform availability is concerned, the choice set shifts to all other DBMS products, as SQL server runs only on NT. SQL server generally doesn’t take advantage of more than eight processors in an NT box while databases on Oracle, DB2 etc can scale almost indefinitely on Unix. But this is a deliberate Microsoft strategy. “The reason we do this is, first of all, a commitment to the Windows platform, there’s no denying that. The other is that this is the only way that we can provide customers with a single product that always behaves consistently. The third reason why we do it-and the most important one-is that, if we were not to build this on a single platform, we would never be able give customers a good consistent story of the tight integration that we have between not only SQL server and the client applications but with server applications, middle-tier applications, application development tools and the office productivity applications,” explains
Mathur.

To
TPC-C or TPC-D?


One way of comparing database software is by referring to the benchmark tests conducted by Transaction Processing Performance Council
(TPC) of the US. The TPC has two main benchmarks hosted on its website,
www.tpc.org, one is an OLTP benchmark called TPC-C and second is a decision support benchmark called
TPC-D. The site describes the difference between the two as: “Decision support is the capability of a system to support the formulation of business decisions through complex queries against a database. OLTP applications are update-intensive and generally consist of shorter transactions that access a small portion of a database, often through a primary key or index.”

The TPC-C benchmark is further split into results by performance and
price/performance. The top ten TPC-C results by performance have Oracle 8i occupying the first five positions based on hardware supplied by Sun, Compaq, Sequent, HP and IBM, in that order. However, when it comes to price/performance, all the top ten
TPC-C results go in favor of SQL Server 7.0 on hardware supplied by Dell, Compaq and Unisys.

What The Two Vendors Say

Oracle

1. SQL still has a lot of catching up to do to equal 8i. It’s more similar to Oracle 6 or 7.
2. SQL is a bought out product, essentially Sybase.
3. SQL is only available on NT and therefore shares the limitations of the OS
4. SQL offers no support for Java.
5. Microsoft’s pricing strategy is predatory

Microsoft

1.SQL is the better product
2. The Oracle engine is years old, it is a layered product
3. Microsoft is available on NT only because by doing so it offers consistent product performance.
4. Oracle requires more demanding hardware.
5. There is no need to put Java in SQL, because it’s already present in NT.
6. SQL offers more functionality at a lower cost

On the
TPC-D benchmark, where results are grouped by database sizes of 30GB, 100GB, 300GB, 1000GB and 3000GB, SQL server does not figure. The fields are populated by the traditional players-Oracle, IBM, Informix and NCR. But as with everything else,
TPC-C benchmarks, in particular, are controversial with each player interpreting them in different ways. “On NT we are holding an absolute performance record on
TPC-C and TPC-D. Microsoft is not competing in those areas, it’s just running on the smaller systems. Now Microsoft would say that those records are not relevant because they are on high-end systems. It’s only because they can’t compete, that they are saying this,” says Farris. To this, Mathur reacts,
“What Oracle tries to project with its benchmark is that it has the most scalable and high-performance solution. But, if you look keenly at what was used to get those benchmarks, one gets a much clearer picture.

What The Facts Say
1. SQL 7 is more of a contender than 6.5. But it still has some way to go. Oracle needs to watch out.
2. The TPC-C benchmarks ranks Oracle on top in terms of performance. However, here it is important to note that hardware is determined and supplied by the vendor.
3. In the TPC-C price-performance benchmark Microsoft is on top. For mission-critical scenarios, on a variety of platforms, it’s hard to beat Oracle. On NT, SQL now makes a compelling choice.
4. The Standard edition of SQL does offer more functionality (with free
OLAP tool) than the standard Workgroup Server edition of Oracle 8.
5. A recent Gartner Group study found that Oracle 8 Enterprise Edition costs 2.9 to 12.5 times more than Microsoft SQL Server Enterprise edition.

Oracle’s best
TPC-C benchmark on Windows NT on a single server is on a 12 CPU machine. It loses squarely to SQL Server 7.0 on a single CPU Intel box on the
TPC-C benchmark with its best benchmark on a four-CPU machine. We have the better benchmark on single, two-and four-CPU machines than any database on anybody’s hardware using anybody’s operating system. Get me a four CPU Alpha box running digital Unix and Oracle 8i, and we will lick them on the
TPC-C benchmark. Their next best benchmark on NT is on a cluster of six Compaq Proliant 6500 boxes with four CPUs each. If a customer wants a 12 CPU machine, I don’t have a better benchmark than Oracle. But if Oracle is clutching at straws in the top 5% of the market, so be it.”

Farris says, pushing the entire big versus small system debate under the carpet, “On the smaller scale systems that are normally supporting smaller number of users, any of these databases can more than adequately meet the peak performance demand. On the higher systems, the absolute performance numbers are relevant, because you typically buy larger systems for larger number of users.” On the issue whether SQL runs better on smaller systems, Farris says, “The primary reason for the difference is that SQL is providing much less functionality, so it has lesser overheads. The question is not who runs better on a $1,000 computer. The key question is who provides the highest reliability and availability which users are demanding. Who is supporting the internet model of computing at the same time as client server, which is where the market is today. Who is providing the ability to use the latest technologies like Java? Where is Microsoft’s support for Java?”


Aah Java!


The technology seems to pop up everywhere. As far as Mathur is concerned, Java support in SQL is not an issue, "Since we have one platform that we run on, it doesn’t make sense from a development perspective to take a certain functionality and put it into individual products. When you look at Microsoft’s server-side applications, we are talking about approximately 17 server products, only one of which is a database product. When you look at Oracle’s approach, it has three server-side products-an OLAP server, a web server and a database server-so they have to put it in the database."

The strategies


What threatens Oracle and the other RDBMS vendors is the tried and successful Microsoft strategy of bundling its products or offering extras at a price that is much lower than what the traditional players have been charging. A case in point is the desktop applications market, which was in the pre-Windows era dominated by players like WordPerfect (word processors), Borland (DBMS) and Lotus (spreadsheets). As more people adopted the Windows platform, Microsoft was able to leverage that advantage to blast its competitors out of the water with its Office suite. It has to be mentioned though, that Lotus, Borland and WordPerfect were late to release Windows versions of their products for fear of helping Microsoft establish Windows. Another similar example and the subject of the US Department of Justice case against Microsoft, is the tactics that the company used to gain share in the browser market.

With SQL, Microsoft bundles an OLAP (on-line analytical processing) tool for free. SQL Server as a part of the Back Office suite makes an attractive package for potential customers. What Oracle, or for that matter any other database-only vendor, lacks is the ability to offer a wide range of products that can be integrated on a single platform like Microsoft and IBM can. With IBM, this advantage extends to the hardware as well. The bundling works for Microsoft, especially where large deals are involved or in the government sector they can afford to undercut heavily.

Says Farris, "Microsoft’s strategies today are still designed to use combinations of low-price points and good marketing messages to bring people in and then putting hooks into them and before they know it they are locked into using their technology. For Microsoft’s strategy to succeed, customers and competitors must lose and that’s fundamentally different from our approach." He adds, "On the one hand they accuse Oracle of charging different prices for the basic and enterprise edition. Look at them, for NT they have three versions. In fact, it’s Microsoft whose pricing is predatory. They use pricing from monopoly markets which they control-end-user OS and office segments-to subsidize the pricing that they can offer in the enterprise market."

While saying that SQL costs lesser per user to implement and upgrade, Mathur adds that in terms of functionality, the Oracle 8 Workgroup Server (the standard version) does not allow the flexibility of adding on any extra modules, "what you got is what you have, while SQL Server 7.0 standard edition includes the whole load of what we have."

With 8i and its internet model of computing, Oracle stretches the traditional client server model to a three-tier architecture, which consists of a database server, application server and a thin client. The model uses the internet/intranet as the medium for distributing data throughout the enterprise. Oracle claims that this model significantly cuts down on ownership costs by centralizing application administration. However, Microsoft employees dismiss 8i as a sales gimmick. Says a marketing manager at One Microsoft Way, "Congratulations to the guy who put the
`i’ behind the eight." Adds Mathur, "Oracle 8i is an attempt to address a problem. It’s trying to address internet applications. Informix tried with universal databases. IBM tried that with UDB as well. Oracle is trying that with Oracle 8i. Essentially, they are the same thing, by putting a file system inside the database they are able to store that information. But what am I going to run that database on? On a file system or an operating system that has a file system anyway? Can I run my web server off this file system? It doesn’t make sense."

But the guy who gave us the infamous network computer (NC) is at it again. One step beyond 8i is another one of CEO Larry Ellison’s ideas dubbed Raw Iron, where he has partnered with fellow Bill basher Scott
McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems. Raw Iron envisages a dedicated PC Server running 8i on top of a Solaris microkernel on hardware supplied by Hewlett-Packard. The idea behind Raw Iron stems from the fact that half of all Oracle users run only the database on their servers. By removing an OS like Windows NT from the equation, the database, Oracle claims, runs much faster. The idea, of course, doesn’t cut ice with Mathur or
Arora.

One factor that could swing sales in the long run is the success of the Linux OS. Linux is fast gaining marketshare in the corporate space and is a popular choice for web servers. Importantly, it is the only OS that threatens NT. Oracle, Informix and IBM have launched or have plans to introduce Linux versions of their database products. In fact, some international press reports have said that Microsoft is toying with the idea of porting Office 2000 on to Linux and perhaps even SQL Server. But denying any such reports Mathur says, "All this Linux stuff is a gimmick. Linux is an open source software. Anybody who imbibes this open source software culture must also make his own code open source. Oracle is going to jump off this bandwagon the day its customers start demanding free code from Oracle. It’s nonsense, they are not going to stand by that."

So where does the entire debate leave an IS manger looking to implement or migrate to a more capable database? SQL 7 is the cheaper option and a very compelling one for sites already running NT. Having said that, Oracle is the better bet for large enterprise customers, mission-critical situations and non-Windows sites.

With its new mantra-the internet changes everything-Oracle may just be on the right track, but with Microsoft in dogged pursuit there is no room for error.

ABHAY SINGH
in New Delhi.

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