Database Alternatives Grab Attention of Users, Top Vendors

Upstarts look to fill niches where large DBs are slow, pricey

Oracle Corp., IBM and Microsoft Corp. may have controlled almost 90% of the relational database market last year, but alternative products from vendors promising software that's less costly and easier to manage are now appearing on IT radar screens .

Many of the upstart vendors are aiming for niches where conventional large database servers would be too slow or pricey. For example, technologies such as handheld devices, point-of-sale systems, and networking and security gear increasingly need to gather, store and process data in real time -- a task that even the fastest Oracle or IBM DB2 database isn't suited for.

That's pushing some users toward embedded databases, such as an object-oriented one offered by Db4objects Inc. in San Mateo, Calif. Its open-source db4o software can be built directly into Java and .Net applications. This month, the company released Version 5.0 of the database, adding support for writing queries in the native semantics of Java, C# and Visual Basic .Net.

"Development with db4o is extremely intuitive," said Matt Eskandar, technical manager at MR Control Systems International Inc., a Calgary, Alberta-based company that sells industrial control software to power and oil companies.

MR, which is embedding db4o in an upcoming version of its software, has used other databases in the past, including SQL Server 2000, Access, Paradox and dBase IV. "Storing an object using db4o takes only a few lines of code," Eskandar said. "In comparison, putting together a parameterized SQL command to insert a record can become quite an exercise."

Microsoft, Oracle and IBM all sell embedded versions of their databases that would compete with db40.

Yet despite limited marketing, Db4objects has garnered more than 9,000 registered users in the past 12 months, said CEO Christoff Wittig. That includes customers such as BMW AG, which is building a prototype Java-based control system for its luxury cars using db4o, and The Boeing Co., which is using the database in its P-8A marine aircraft for the U.S. Navy, Wittig said.

Even some of the big database vendors are acknowledging the importance of technologies outside the relational mainstream. Oracle even put some of its money down on one last summer, when it bought TimesTen Inc., a developer of a database that processes information while it's still in a server's memory. Oracle released an update of the TimesTen software last month and is positioning the in-memory technology as a front-end cache for its relational databases.

Battle for Customers

Other vendors of database alternatives are also trying to meet users' need for more speed than relational software can provide. For example, StreamBase Systems Inc. in Lexington, Mass., claims that its namesake database can process up to 150,000 messages per second as information flows through a system.

And Burlingame, Calif.-based Ants Software Inc. is trying to steal users away from the top vendors with technology that it says can guarantee data integrity despite having to lock individual data cells only on an occasional basis. Typically, databases lock whole rows of data to ensure that information is written to each cell in the proper order.

Grupo S&C, a systems integrator in Mexico City, processes bimonthly paychecks for about 30,000 people as part of a Web-based payroll system that it runs for a client on an outsourced basis. But database performance was a problem with SQL Server 2000, said Juan Ramos, Grupo S&C's vice president of technology.

"Everyone wants to get paid at the same time," Ramos said. "We were getting about 300,000 transactions in two hours. And we were having [data] locking problems." He added that switching to the Ants Data Server "made it completely better."

Ants began selling its database late last year and now has 13 customers. The company said the software is compatible with the data types, functions and SQL extensions of Oracle, SQL Server and other databases, allowing it to run applications written for those products. This month, Ants announced an upgrade that adds support for MySQL and Informix databases.

Although analysts generally applauded the potential performance, manageability and pricing benefits of many of the emerging technologies, they also said the reality of user inertia may make it difficult for small vendors to win converts.

"Even if the technology does all that Ants claims, it's going to be hard for them," said Curt Monash, a consultant in Acton, Mass., and a Computerworld columnist. "Most customers would just rather throw hardware at the problem."

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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