Trekking Across the Database Universe

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Over the past decade, the continued advancement and sophistication of database technology has fueled an ever-increasing hunger for information. Today, organizations consider database management systems (DBMS) to be not only strategic business assets, but also the sole resource that transforms vast quantities of data into information that can actually drive business performance. “Data volumes and the scope of what companies can track with data continue their astronomical growth,” said Howard Fosdick, president of Fosdick Consulting Inc., an IT management consultancy and database administrator contractor. “The DBMSs are more automated and self-managing, which leads to less technical database tending and more inspirational data leveraging by DBAs for competitive advantage.”


IBM’s DB2, Oracle’s 10g and 9i, and Microsoft’s SQL Server are considered the cream of the crop of DBMSs today. The big three have held their elite position as market-share leaders for the past 10 years or so—after Sybase fell out of the ranks in the mid-1990s. However, according to Fosdick, the rise of open-source DBMSs could shake up the big three’s dominance in the future. “This has already prompted Oracle and IBM to give away free, single-user versions of their databases,” Fosdick said. “Clearly the big three feel the competitive heat, but very few IT organizations for the foreseeable future will replace commercial DBMSs with open source.”


Although commercial DBMSs are likely to retain their dominance, more and more companies are adding open-source databases into the mix. “Many organizations are utilizing open-source databases as well because they are typically inexpensive since their license fees are either zero or very minimal,” Fosdick said. “Commercial DBMSs like Oracle, DB2 and SQL Server are among the most costly software packages that IT sites buy, and low-cost open-source DBMSs can curtail this spending.”


Nevertheless, open-source DBMSs cannot displace commercial DBMS, Fosdick said. Open-source databases often lack special features, scalability and add-on tools like business intelligence, data mining, OLAP and ETL. Other challenges presented by open-source DBMSs include a lack of applications packages, as well as the need to budget time and money to convert from one DBMS to another. “Even if average IT shops wanted to convert totally from Oracle, DB2 or SQL server to an open-source product, this would be a huge project that would take years to complete,” Fosdick said. “Most will instead say, ‘Why bother?’ and just plug open-source DBMSs into new applications where there is clear cost advantage to be had. So they end up with both commercial and open-source DBMSs running side by side.”


Throughout the industry, open-source systems are commonly used for development, small projects, informal projects, projects run in specific departments rather than by centralized IT and projects run by developers where DBAs are not involved. According to Fosdick, large organizations use open-source databases to complement their main commercial databases only in specific applicable areas.


However, according to Carsten Pedersen, certification manager for MySQL AB, “In the past, when an application became too large for its current architecture, IT departments had to scale up and buy bigger hardware and a more expensive database license to run it on, and there was also a lot of work that went into that complex migration. Now you are seeing many companies scale out with MySQL. They have an old proprietary DBMS that is too expensive to throw away, but also too expensive to grow. So instead, they leave the existing DBMS intact and attach dozens or even hundreds of low-cost MySQL servers around it running on cheap commodity PCs.”


MySQL is one of the most prominent open-source DBMSs on the market today. It is traditionally viewed as a fast, reliable Web database, but has been slowly creeping into other IT business applications, such as telecommunications, retail and government. “MySQL definitely has mindshare and market-share momentum. And the new version 5.0 that just came out fixed many of its feature shortcomings like lack of views, nested sub-queries, triggers, stored procedures, etc.,” Fosdick said. “MySQL is way behind the big-three commercial DBMSs in terms of its feature and scalability outside of Web applications, but often the market does not look too closely at such technical limitations. It will be interesting to see how MySQL fares over time.”


Sybase and Teradata are also commonly used, but according to Fosdick, Sybase is not viewed as anything more than a legacy system and is rarely considered in competitive bidding today. “Sybase had the world by the tail in the early ’90s, but declined by mid-decade and now cannot recover its lost market share,” he said. “Sybase lost the market because it failed to fix certain technical shortcomings of their product in its System 10 and System 11 releases in the mid-’90s. And by the time they finally addressed these issues, the world had moved on.”


On the other hand, Teradata is considered a niche product that provides a single, integrated view of companies’ businesses so they can make better, faster decisions that drive growth and profitability. Fosdick said that Teradata holds approximately 2 percent market share because its database is primarily used for high-end data warehousing. “It is an expensive niche product that is unlikely to grow market share and is perhaps endangered even it its niche as IBM’s DB2 and UDB and Oracle are successfully expanding into high-end data warehouses,” he said.


Because databases are used everywhere, in every company and for every application written in modern companies, the hunger for information will only become more powerful. “DBMSs will increasingly automate their functions and manage themselves. DBAs will do less techie hand-holding and expand their purview into issues of how companies can best leverage their data for competitive advantage,” Fosdick said. “DBAs will be challenged to expand their knowledge into such areas as business intelligence, data mining and other business activities that bring to bear data on business problems.”


However, the speed at which database technology advances and the amount of information that U.S. companies have access to today may soon be under the strict scrutiny of the government. “Privacy legislation could have a huge impact on corporate use of data. The United States is way less regulated than Europe in this respect, but this could change radically depending on political currents in Washington,” Fosdick said. “Today only health and financial sectors deal with governmentally mandated privacy issues, and this could expand to all companies that retain personal data on American citizens and impact the operations of those companies in a big way.”


Not only would privacy legislation affect companies’ operations—it also would be extremely costly to meet the standards of compliance. If such legislation is approved, it will be interesting to see how the database industry is affected, how they will react and whether or not the cost of compliance will boost the open-source database market.


–Cari McLean,

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