Oracle Corp. this week will unveil a new version of its flagship database software that company executives claim will give Oracle a technical edge over its rivals and make it the only vendor with a major product upgrade at one of the most contentious times the database market has seen in years.
The announcement of the long-awaited Oracle9i database, which is scheduled for next Thursday, comes at a critical time for the software developer. While a recent study had Oracle widening its database market share lead last year, increased competition from IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. has led some longtime users and analysts to question Oracle's future position.
Oracle executives are undoubtedly "reaching for antacid ... because their most formidable foe is suddenly much larger and stronger," wrote independent industry analyst Phil Russom in a recent study on the potential impact of IBM's US$1 billion deal to buy Informix Corp.'s Informix Software database unit in Menlo Park, Calif.
However, Oracle claims that Oracle9i's advanced clustering technology and improved management features designed to cut costs for users will change the competitive landscape of the database market. The company has already made a preview version of 9i available for free downloading by application developers.
"Oracle is coming out with a brand-new product at a time when our competitors have very stale products in the marketplace," said Bob Shimp, senior director of Oracle9i product marketing. "We're very bullish about the database market."
Microsoft doesn't plan to release the next version of its SQL Server database, code-named Yukon, until next year. But IBM began shipping the latest release of its DB2 software just last week (see story).
Jeff Jones, senior program manager at IBM's data management solutions division, countered Oracle's claims, saying that Version 7.2 of DB2 is "a lot bigger" than a typical upgrade. In fact, he said, DB2 7.2 includes many of the capabilities Oracle has been touting in its own marketing, including support for Web services, application integration and data integration, plus integrated business intelligence and statistical analysis technology.
The centerpiece of Oracle9i is what Oracle calls Real Application Clusters, which are designed to let users add more low-end servers to their IT installations as new applications are rolled out. Oracle calls the clustering approach a "pay as you grow" strategy and claims it will reduce hardware costs by a third.
Another new feature that Oracle claims will save users money is Oracle Data Guard. According to the company, Data Guard offers a "zero data-loss guarantee" by allowing companies to switch to a standby database without custom coding.
Betsy Burton, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said major advances in database technology that can set vendors apart from one another have started to slow down. But what Oracle has "that continues to differentiate it is that it comes as the top choice for tools vendors [and] professional services organizations," she said.
As for where Oracle9i will take the vendor in the struggle for the best database, "a lot will depend on what 9i actually is," Jones said. "They've got to prove it."