Sybase customers praise year-old ASE 15 database

Boosted by growing sales and positive customer reviews of the year-old upgrade to its flagship Adaptive Server Enterprise (ASE) software, Sybase is starting to shed its reputation as an also-ran in the database market.

Sybase has long maintained strong database sales in certain industries, such as financial services, health care, government and telecommunications, as well as in countries such as China. According to IDC, it was the fourth-largest database vendor worldwide last year, with US$503 million in revenues, but held just 3.5 percent of the US$14.6 billion global market. That's far behind third place Microsoft, which had US$2.5 billion in revenues and 15 percent of the market in 2005.

Sybase was once the second-largest database vendor behind only Oracle, but it fell behind in the mid-1990s after failing to keep pace with other vendors by providing a then-key feature, row-level locking.

Following the release of ASE 15 last September, Sybase database sales have risen. For the first six months of 2006, revenues from licenses for ASE grew 8 percent from the same period in the prior year. For the second quarter alone, license revenues were up 21 percent year over year.

"Until you start growing, there will always be some hesitation [in the market]," Marty Beard, Sybase's senior vice president for sales and marketing, said in a briefing at the company's annual Techwave conference in Las Vegas this week. "That has decreased in the last several months."

Customers that have upgraded to ASE 15 from ASE 12.5 -- Sybase skipped Versions 13 and 14 to avoid numbers deemed unlucky in Western and East Asian cultures, respectively -- say the product is generally serving them well.

"Our performance improvement is about 10 percent to 15 percent just out of the box," said Jody Mulkey, vice president for data systems at Shopzilla. The Los Angeles-based consumer price search engine has upgraded about one-third of its production databases and all of its development and quality-assurance databases to ASE 15. Mulkey said that Shopzilla, as an e-commerce company dependent on Web advertising, needs a nimble database that can be tuned for ever-faster performance.

While Mulkey hasn't concluded yet how much more of an increase in query execution speed he can wring out of ASE 15, he said the database has already proven, via its partitioning feature, strong at "reducing complexity as much as possible." Shopzilla plans to move completely to ASE 15 by November.

Starz Entertainment Group has upgraded the staging databases for its Sybase IQ-based data warehouse to ASE 15.

"The performance has been great so far," said Nancy Dreisbach, database administration manager at the cable broadcaster. Starz uses ASE 12.5 to manage its movie and TV show database, which is used to manage its broadcasts, and to facilitate downloads at its Vongo video-on-demand service. Dreisbach cited ASE 15's column-level encryption feature and its rewritten optimizer as being particularly useful.

In an interview, Sybase CEO John Chen said that a quarter of ASE 15's new customers migrated from other databases, primarily Windows NT, with the rest upgrading from ASE 12.5, which was released in 2001. Besides the new features, Sybase says the increase in sales of its ASE and SQL Anywhere databases can be attributed to an increase in the number of Sybase developers. There are now 160,000 such developers, up more than 200 percent from the 60,000 in 2002, Chen said during a keynote speech at Techwave. Sybase expects to begin offering a shared disk cluster feature in ASE 15 by the first half of next year.

While ASE still lags behind market leaders in terms of overall features, its little brother, SQL Anywhere, does not. And at Techwave, Sybase released Version 10 of SQL Anywhere, which the company said boasts 200 new features. SQL Anywhere can run on servers or be embedded in applications or even handheld devices.

"We chose SQL Anywhere back in 1999 because Oracle was clunky and not full-featured and Microsoft and IBM didn't have a product," said Andrew Braunstein, chief technology officer at Healthwyse, a technology services provider for home health care providers. He said the company plans to upgrade when Version 10.1 is released.

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