Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a series of terrible wars. At stake was control of the multi-million dollar database sector. The shadow of the empire of Oracle hung over the market while the rebel forces of Ingres, Sybase and Informix attempted to topple the overlord Ellison through a series of increasingly fraught technology and marketing campaigns. Ultimately, they failed and the rebel forces scattered throughout the rest of the industry as the empire expanded its reach...

A somewhat overblown analogy perhaps, but one that is entirely in keeping with the overblown nature of the so-called ‘database wars’ of the mid-1990s which saw marketing hype taken to new and ever more ridiculous extremes.

War of the words

Informix squandered a small fortune for permanent use of a bill board outside the Oracle headquarters to run ‘hilarious’ slogans as “caution – dinosaur crossing’. Pointless transaction processing benchmarks that bore almost no relation to real world circumstances were bandied around as blunt instruments with which to bludgeon the competition. And the war of words took on near personal enmity as rival CEOs lined up to take pot shots at Oracle’s Larry Ellison – who simply smiled and went off to count his billions.

But suddenly one day it was over. Informix overheated and fell into the welcoming arms of IBM. Ingres had long given up the ghost and suffered wilderness years in the dubious stewardship of ASK Group before finding a born-again existence inside Computer Associates. Meanwhile Sybase moved into other areas as its reputation as future Oracle-killer was exposed for the folly it was.

Only IBM remained to challenge Oracle’s dominance of the sector. After being the most turbulent, action-packed sector of the software industry, the database landscape settled down in the early 21st century to a more stable, almost overlooked business.

Money to be made

That is not to say that the database market is not still big business. According to research firm IDC the 2005 relational database market was worth $14.6 billion, up 9.4 per cent over 2004 numbers, while Gartner Group pitches the numbers at 8.3 per cent growth to hit $13.8bn in sales. While the marketing bandwagons have trundled on to ‘sexier’ areas, there is clearly life in the old dog yet.

In addition, the underlying technology – which some commentators have been tempted to dub as ‘near commodity’ – is still being applied by users to meet changing needs. It is not just a case of rows and columns of alphanumeric text, a kind of software filing cabinet. Today’s users have more sophisticated requirements from databases.

"The software isn’t going to run without the hardware. You need a set of products that allow you to get the best out of them. Database technology isn’t a totally a commodity product yet"

Martin Gill, new media fund raising manager, Comic Relief

Take Comic Relief, for example. Since its inception in 1985, Comic Relief’s events such as Red Nose Days and Sports Relief have raised more than £337 million. While the first Red Nose Day solicited contributions largely by telephone, the channels for making contributions have expanded over the years. “Until recently, nearly all donations on the night of the TV show were made by telephone,” says Martin Gill, new media fund raising manager for Comic Relief. ‹

“Online donations are growing rapidly and now make up over 10 per cent of the funds raised by Red Nose activities. There has been a shift from the telephone as the sole response channel towards online and interactive TV.” Comic Relief uses Oracle database technology running on Sun Microsystems hardware to underpin its infrastructure for donations, e-commerce and event or user registrations.

“We’ve been with Oracle for about five years,” says Gill. “We are mainly focused on key events during the year, such as Comic Relief and Sports Relief. Our objective is to produce a secure response channel for the public when they want to make donations. On the last Red Nose day, we had to handle 250,000 transactions in five hours. While Sports Relief has smaller objectives, we are currently gearing up and bulking up the infrastructure for March 2007.”

Database progression

Gill says that database technology – particularly when closely aligned with developments in hardware platforms such as Sun Sparc boxes – is still advancing. “One of the things I’ve noticed is that I can now get more information out of the database,” he says. “What is important for us is to get live information to drive the television programmes. When we started with Oracle 8i, it was hard because it didn’t have a huge amount of computing power. Oracle 10g is much more capable. The optimisation between Oracle and Sun also works really well. The Oracle database software gets the best out of the Sun hardware and vice versa. So in parallel with the Oracle suite reaching outwards, the hardware it runs on is a much better proposition as well. The software isn’t going to run without the hardware. You need a set of products that allow you to get the best out of them. Database technology isn’t a totally a commodity product yet.”

Performance management and optimisation has always been a feature of the database market. As noted above, the Transaction Processing Council’s performance benchmarks used to be seen as an essential marketing tool by all the vendors, although the souped-up laboratory conditions on which the figures were based seldom matched real world. But with the advent of the internet as a viable business platform and the unpredictable scalability demands placed on database technologies as a result, performance and reliability have emerged as essential requirements.

Recruitment website, Totaljobs Group, handles up to 75m job searches and email alerts from over 18,000 companies a month. With an average of 50,000 positions advertised every week, totaljobs.com claims it handles more UK vacancies, across more industry sectors, than any of its main competitors.

Job search

The required job, candidate profile and CV database search capability are provided by Microsoft’s SQL Server 2005 that handles over 1m user searches a day. The group deploys a two-tier database infrastructure maintained via the use of SQL Servers transactional replication. “Core to all our job sites is the ability to search for jobs and candidates,” says Simon Sabin, database architect at TotalJobs.

“We use SQL Server to provide that search capability. The database can search on the candidate or the word base for that job. What we look for in a database goes far beyond the traditional storing of data. We are a complete Microsoft shop so we need the database to be able to integrate with our development tools. We are also looking at a lot of options that we can use to better analyse the data, not necessarily just having a keyword approach to searching. A database that can do querying and storage is taken for granted these days. It’s what you put on top of the database that matters.”

Enterprise push

Microsoft has put a lot of effort into promoting SQL Server as an enterprise level product capable of competing with Oracle and IBM’s DB2. “We see it as an enterprise product,” says Sabin. “Of course, we’re not a bank or a trading floor so we don’t do the millions of transactions that they would do. But we do put a lot through the system. The great thing for us is that we can deploy on a commodity platform and can expand when we need to support our growth. We started with a 10mg database than is now 10Tb.”

While Microsoft has proven its database credibility over the years, it is also true that Oracle and IBM retain a significant lead in the marketplace. But there are new alternatives emerging, some of which are reinvigorated versions of familiar names.

Ingres was the primary competitor to Oracle in the early days of the relational revolution but fell by the wayside in the wake of its rival’s ruthless sales strategy of marketshare at any cost. After a sojourn as part of ASK Group, the company ended up in Computer Associates portfolio, where the much-neglected database received some long-overdue investment.

Opening up options

Now Ingres has entered a new phase of its development as an open source database after CA decided to divest itself of the product set. As a result, many long standing relational database customers now find themselves as pioneers in the enterprise open source revolution. One such company is International Customer Loyalty Programmes, an $8m a year firm offering loyalty marketing solutions to clients including Visa, Virgin Atlantic and Radisson SAS Hotels.

ICLP has been a long time Ingres customer, using the database as the foundation for all its marketing activities. “We rely on Ingres,” says Shag Rahman, ICLP’s group technical director. “We looked at all the big brand database names back in 1987 when we started. Ingres had impressive technology and was the most cost effective. As we’ve grown, we’ve continued to use it. A database is a black box. Our users don’t care what kind it is. As long as it runs their business processes that’s all they worry about. I want a database that stays up; I don’t want something that’s precarious.”

That included the wilderness years when the database became a distinctly neglected part of the ASK product set through the CA stewardship and now into the open source incarnation. “We’d chosen the database on the basis of its technology, then nine months later it was bought by ASK. It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to hear.” This is a bold move for the product given that open source technology’s role in the enterprise has yet to be fully proven.

Looking ahead

Rahman is phlegmatic about the future. “I am comfortable with the idea of open source,” he says. “In 18 months time when we go out and try to find an Ingres-skills person, I’m going to be happier to get the pick of 10 rather than having trouble finding one as it was 10 years ago. It should also expand the take-up of Ingres. At the moment, you still have enterprise customers who want to have a good database product but find it too expensive from the usual providers. With an open source option, you will have lots of customers who will take on the product and they will have a working, proven technology product.”

The underlying message is that while the war is over, the peace has yet to be won. Database technology may not longer be the subject of the kind of frenzied marketing that characterises the applications software space these days but any organisation that does not put its choice of database vendor close to the heart of its IT strategy will still miss out on significant competitive advantage.

Database downtime

The crucial role of the underlying database is illustrated by the downtime issues that plagued software as a service (SaaS) provider Salesforce.com.

While marketing itself as the software firm that wants to be “the end of software”, Salesforce.com was laid low thanks to problems with the Oracle database technology that underpins its service.

“Some of our customers experienced intermittent service availability which was caused by a problem in our database cluster,” says Parker Harris, executive vice-president of technology. “This issue required Salesforce.com to restart each database instance in the cluster, resulting in a pause in service.”

Fortunately Salesforce.com is well connected. CEO and founder Marc Benioff used to work for Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, so some top-level attention to the problems with the database cluster was available pretty much straight away. Indeed Benioff insists that Ellison was entirely helpful in resolving the problems and that Oracle was not to blame for the downtime, although a database software bug is still regarded as the main culprit. “We don’t want outages and we’re doing everything we can to not to have them, but they will occasionally happen,” he says. “That’s part of computing. Nothing runs at 100 per cent availability.”

But Benioff also argues that the move to a new datacentre played its part. “It’s a new level of performance, reliability and scalability for the company,” he argues.
“Everything had to be rewritten. There were many, many steps we had to take and a huge amount of work over the course of a year.”

Salesforce.com is also adding database-mirroring technology to beef up its data redundancy capabilities by creating a duplicate database in a separate location to synchronise data instantaneously.

In the event that one database is destroyed or disabled, the other one takes over.

The database landscape

So who’s who in the database market? Gartner Group reports that revenue from relational database technology totaled $13.8bn in 2005, up 8.3 per cent year-on-year.

Oracle’s marketshare grew 7.8 per cent to 48.6 per cent from 2004 to 2005.

IBM comes in a distant second at 22 per cent with 6.3 per cent year-over-year growth.

Microsoft is in third place with 15 per cent of the market in 2005 but boasts a growth rate of 16.6 per cent growth thanks largely to pent-up demand for SQL Server 2005.

Teradata and Sybase take 3.2 per cent and 2.9 per cent, respectively with the remaining 8.2 per cent going to smaller vendors and open source database providers. The open source vendors – such as MySQL and now Ingres – can take considerable cheer from reporting the fastest growth rate.

In fact, Linux grew the fastest of all the database platforms at 84 per cent.