SAN MATEO (04/24/2000) - It can be frightening to think about just how much trust a company, especially one with mission-critical Web-based applications, must put in its enterprise database environment. To avoid making the wrong choice, companies generally stick to a small group of top-tier products when making a buying decision. IBM Corp.'s DB2 is among those on the short list of high-end solutions. DB2 has flirted at the altar of greatness but never quite reached the pinnacle, due in part to a more complicated management environment and its lack of optimization for Web-based application development.
But with Version 7.1, a major new release of the software announced earlier this month, IBM has introduced a range of improvements that addresses many of those shortcomings. The new version makes the database easier to manage, more friendly for Web application developers, and readily deployable for decision support analysis.
The database wars
DB2's strengths have always been scalability and a wide range of supported platforms. With last year's release of the Satellite and Everywhere Editions (Version 6.1), IBM added mobile devices to its list of supported environments.
Oracle8i remains a formidable contender, thanks to an unsurpassed feature set that facilitates integration with Web applications. For example, Oracle provides an Internet File System that lets you define a database as a shared, easily accessible network drive. Meanwhile, on Windows, Microsoft has augmented SQL Server with remarkable ease of use and integration with its own Web and applications development tools.
So it's no surprise that many of the enhancements IBM has introduced in DB2 7.1 make the product easier to use and invigorate the connectivity features both to Web applications and to data external to the database. For example, to make the product more apropos for business intelligence applications, DB2 now includes an OLAP (online analytical processing) starter kit that delivers full data analysis functionality for a limited number of users.
The OLAP kit should satisfy the requirements of smaller installations; it creates, via guided dialog boxes, cubes of data that end-users can analyze from their Lotus 1-2-3 or Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. And, thanks to a comprehensive, step-by-step tutorial, no formal training is required to become familiar with this mini-OLAP (which is also compatible with the full version of the IBM OLAP server).
Another example of DB2's newfound simplicity is wizard implementations that can help you complete many DB2 tasks. These wizards include "road maps" on each screen that let you quickly navigate back and forth inside the wizard windows rather than move through the process sequentially.
I was happy to find that IBM eliminated the awkward eight-character limitation for DB2 user authentication. You can now define DB2 users to as many as 30 characters long. This will get nods of approval in shops that have adopted or want to adopt Windows NT authentication; now you can open a single user ID for both Windows and DB2.
DB2 7.1 also adds a handful of badly needed features that go beyond mere convenience issues. Among these is support for nested stored procedures, a feature that competing products already offer. This feature lets you activate one stored procedure from within another. Database administrators will appreciate this ability to daisy-chain stored procedures because it simplifies management tasks, such as reorganizing an index or a table. In addition, an interactive wizard helps less-experienced administrators create and test stored procedures step by step.
Other welcome changes are temporary tables that automatically disappear when they're no longer needed and columns that can gather content from either other columns or an automated increment factor. The first of these improvements eliminates the need to write a script to remove the table and reclaim the space it occupied. The latter means developers no longer have to drill through mundane programming tasks, such as calculating the inventory value of an item or ensuring proper consecutive numbering of documents.
Although not yet packaged in the beta code, I was excited to learn of extended support for XML that will be included in the shipping version, which is expected in June. Currently, the XML Extender is available as a free download from IBM's Web site. DB2 users will be able to store XML documents in their entirety or by each field's definition. This vastly improves DB2's ability to store and retrieve XML data types.
With Version 7.1, IBM is clearly steering DB2 toward a more open environment, increasing its ability to utilize current driving standards. Moreover, by enhancing ease of use, this version of the database is less expensive to manage. Although DB2 isn't a slam dunk (companies will still have to evaluate it alongside Oracle8i and SQL Server), it stands its ground as a high-performance, full-featured data solution.
Mario Apicella (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior analyst for the InfoWorld Test Center.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BETA
IBM DB2 7.1, beta
Business Case: With enhanced ease of use for management features, such as OLAP data analysis capabilities and support for nested stored procedure, DB2 should be welcomed by database administrators as a host for all types of environments, including e-commerce.
Technology Case: Version 7.1 has welcome new features, and the beta release tested was trouble-free, although some key functions required a separate download.
+ Simplified administration and migration path+ New business intelligence capabilities+ Strong scalability+ Support for all major platformsCons:
- Backward-compatibility problems potentially created with existing DB2 databases- XML enhancements not present in betaCost: Not available at press timePlatform(s): Solaris, HP-UX, AIX, Linux, OS/2, AS/400, OS/390, Numa-Q, Windows 2000Shipping: June 2000IBM Corp., Armonk, New York; (800) 426-4968; www.software.ibm.com.