Database derby

Database vendors are adding increasing amounts of functionality to their products in an attempt to improve performance and boost sales in a market that is becoming increasingly commoditised.

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  October 27, 2003

I|~||~||~|Oracle’s 10g database, which is due to begin shipping in the Middle East next month, contains a number of new self-management and diagnostic capabilities. Foremost among these is Database Control and Automatic Storage Management (ASM). The former is a web-based console that provides a graphical diagnostic window into the database as it operates, while the latter simplifies storage configuration and management.

Both tools are designed to automate routine administrative tasks, such as statistics collection, instance tuning and memory tuning. As a result, the vendor believes its latest database will ultimately reduce management headaches, improve administration and generate substantial cost savings.

“Our key focus is to cut down the time people [database administrators] are spending on repetitive tasks, so anything to do with installing, upgrading, backing up, resizing files, tuning and so on has been taken inside the database,” says Ayman Abouseif, Oracle Middle East’s marketing manager.

“Where the DBA used to spend 80% of their time doing repetitive tasks they can now… help people access the data, design links and do the data integration they have always wanted to,” he adds.

In addition to improving the self-management capabilities of its database with 10g, Oracle is also attempting to optimise system performance. Key to this is enhancing the software’s ability to accelerate query speeds.

“A lot of people don’t use databases as just a store for data tables. They use them for business intelligence, which means they need lots of different capabilities, such as the ability to deal with large tables intelligently and automatically re-write SQL queries and also optimise them,” says Abouseif.

“To facilitate this, 10g notifies the DBA when there are a lot of similar queries being run and offers to create an index for it. If the DBA accepts then it can improve query performance by up to 90%,” he explains.

Oracle is not alone in enhancing its database offering and other vendors are also working on features that improve the overall functionality of their products to make them both more attractive and more useful to end user organisations.

||**||II|~||~||~|IBM, for instance, is making changes to DB2. Recently it has improved its analysis features with the introduction of DB2 Cube Views, which use algorithms to automate the creation of online analytical processing (OLAP) metadata, and the vendor is also working to enhance its integration capabilities.

“From a database-specific perspective we are talking about seamless integration across the enterprise, partners and suppliers,” confirms Sameer Gupta, manager for data management solutions at IBM Middle East, Egypt & Pakistan.

Elsewhere, Microsoft has been boosting both the business intelligence (BI) functionality of its SQL Server offering and improving its management tools. The former has been enhanced by integrated intelligence offerings and table functionality, while the latter has been addressed through SQL tools such as Index Tuning Wizard, auto-management interfaces and query optimisation.

“Our strategy is to have the minimum amount of human interference in the management of a database and to have more of the technology in the platform providing the automation. People [should be] there just to monitor it,” says Karim Ramadan, general manager of Microsoft’s operations in Egypt.

Database vendors are enhancing their offerings in response to perceived customer demand. They argue that end users are not only accruing more data, which in itself requires better management capabilities, but that companies are increasingly utilising data through business intelligence (BI) solutions and other extended enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications.

“For people that have ERP and mission critical applications, the desire to use data more to analyse business trends and do forecasting by slicing and dicing the data and manipulating it is making databases more important,” says Ramadan.

Both the recent spate of local BI projects, such as those embarked upon by Commercial Bank of Dubai (CBD) and implemented by Unilever Gulf, and the analyst community support this theory.

“Three years ago BI and data warehousing were ‘nice to have’ technologies, but most companies thought they did not run their business on them. Three years later, however, and the concept of the data warehouse has become an operational platform for many,” says Meta Group analyst Charlie Garry.

||**||III|~||~||~|However, it appears that the growing popularity of applications like BI, rather than the enhancements of database vendors are making to their products, is driving the market. As such, many market pundits are suggesting that databases are slowly becoming a commodity.

“Online transaction processing is becoming commoditised and all the databases have proven to be able to scale to the maximum application profiles… If there is no real differentiation [between databases] users are going to say they don’t need a super-duper function rich database to get the job done. In turn, this means users will start looking for the cheapest option,” says Garry.

Even some vendors are beginning to agree with the analyst community. For instance, Sybase’s regional professional services manager, Yves Khoneisser, says users’ purchasing decisions are now weighted more towards support rather than technical ability.

“What database users select is no longer an issue because the database market is mature. All the databases available have similar features and even if a vendor releases something new one year, the others will match it the next 12 months,” he explains.

“This means that buying a database is no longer the technology decision it was five or ten years ago. Today customers select products on the local presence of the vendor and the support they offer,” Khoneisser continues.

Other factors that support the commodity argument are ongoing price reductions within the database market and an increased amount of bundled packages being touted by both large and small vendors, whereby databases are simply sold as part of an overall solution.

“The price is going down because databases are being sold as part of a bundle and also because, while users are willing to pay for the applications that sit on top of the databases, they are less willing to pay for the database itself. Users don’t want to pay for both,” says Jyoti Lalchandani, senior consultant for software & services and regional manager of IDC Middle East.

||**||IV|~||~||~|Whether the local database market has reached commodity level yet is open to debate. As always, the two tier nature of the local market — where the large companies are ahead of the technology curve and the rest lag someway behind — distorts any clear view.

For instance, Torben Pedersen, senior analyst, IDC Middle East & North Africa, reports that some sectors within the Middle East have already taken the BI approach whereby a company’s database is only as important as its ability to feed intelligence tools.

“There are some key sectors, such as telcoms, banking and insurance that are heavily dependent on data. As such, they have made a lot of investments in database technology because they have invested in BI,” he says.

However, the vast number of small-to-medium sized businesses (SMBs) alters this view as many of these organisations are only now beginning to invest in technology. As such, they are not picking databases based on enhanced self-management capabilities or analysis tools, but rather on what comes with the niche applications they require.

“The database market in the Middle East today is primarily driven not by ERP or BI, but mostly by companies that offer non-integrated packages,” says Lalchandani. “This means it is vendors that offer small finance apps or healthcare applications, for instance, that are driving demands for databases,” he adds.

This market dynamic appears to have affected the vendor rankings within the Middle East, as compared to global figures. Worldwide, Gartner has IBM dominating with a 36.9% market share and Oracle and Microsoft trailing with 26.9% and 18.8% respectively. However, due to Microsoft’s affinity for the local SMB market and Oracle’s strong relationships within the region’s independent software vendor (ISV) community, both appear to have overhauled Big Blue.

“Oracle has a lot of 5-12 user database orders, so there are a lot of smaller companies out there that have selected ISV applications that run on Oracle databases. We still have the standard edition of our database that is meant for smaller customers and it is selling very well,” says Abouseif.

“We have been doing very well in terms of the SQL Server product line and we have the highest growth rate… Oracle has a large mind share, but we are gaining on it and in terms of installed base, I would say it is 50/50 between us,” adds Ramadan.

IDC supports both Microsoft and Oracle’s bravado, with Lalchandani reporting that “Microsoft and Oracle are getting most of the business. Most IBM databases go with IBM hardware and infrastructure and most of this is sold into banks. Sybase is very small in this region and is not a big player.”

While Sybase and IBM may disagree with IDC’s figures, there is no doubt that the SMB segment will drive the database market within the region for the foreseeable future. As such, it appears as if price and simplicity will be the key factors in local purchasing decisions for some time to come. As Meta Group’s Garry says, “the movement is away from complexity and towards less feature rich, lower cost, but reliable and performance driven software.”||**||

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