E-commerce: Changing the face of databases

When it comes to databases in the Internet age less is definitely not more. In fact as vendors grapple with ramping databases up to Net speed, factors like more security to handle more data for more users and the need for increasingly sophisticated support for an array of standards prompt them to look at ways of adding value and links to new products. John Cox reports.

Databases, not HTML files, are now at the heart of e-commerce applications.

These Web-based applications are putting new demands on database products and that's changing the way companies evaluate database management systems.

"You have to look at the database role as changing significantly," says Michael Mamet, who runs XLS, a consultancy specialising in database tuning. "The database is being made Internet-enabled."He cites security as one example. An e-commerce application that moves data between clients and servers on the Internet can traverse scores of computers, which offer the chance for compromising the data. As a result, he says, Sybase has said it will add support for Secure Sockets Layer and for the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, which is used for authentication, in the upcoming 12.5 release of its database, Adaptive Server Enterprise.

"[Customers] can't just look at the database as a means of storing data," Mamet says. "They have to be concerned about keeping it secure."There are other emerging requirements for e-commerce databases, such as:* The ability to handle larger amounts of data and users than before.

* The need for increasingly sophisticated support for an array of Internet standards, such as Java and the XML.

* The ability to work closely with application servers, other databases, old applications and third-party e-commerce software.

* High-availability features, including server clustering.

* Customers' e-business requirements are setting the pace for database vendors with a new urgency. In June, Oracle announced middleware products and features closely integrated with its core database. One key addition to the Oracle Application Server was a caching feature that offloads data from the database to the application server to speed data access for Web users. At the time the technology was introduced, Oracle chairman Larry Ellison said the idea came from Yahoo, one of the company's customers.

"It has a big Oracle database, but it has caches in hundreds of small computers with copies of the data," he said. "It's a fascinating architecture. We learned a lot from watching that, and decided to incorporate that into our product line."It's significant that Oracle incorporated this feature into a product other than its database but intimately connected with it. Besides adding new features to the database, the vendors are trying to boost the value of their products to e-commerce users by tying them in with new products, either their own or those of other software vendors. These include application servers, Web servers, messaging and other middleware.

"Companies are making their e-commerce decisions based on the application itself, and the overall application architecture, such as the connectivity between the legacy systems and the Web, scaling, security and so on," says John Chen, chairman of Sybase. "The database is a critical component, but they don't make the decision on that alone."As a result, Sybase and other vendors are incorporating the database into new products, which include several interconnected software components. A year ago, Sybase released its Financial Server, a set of applications and middleware for banking and securities customers, built on top of the company's database. Last December, Sybase acquired an Internet consumer banking applications vendor, bundled the software with Financial Server and launched a subsidiary, Financial Fusion, to develop and sell the combined product as a complete e-banking package.

Separately, Informix Software in June released a new version of Informix Foundation.2000. Foundation includes the Informix database management system, along with a Java Virtual Machine, a special component to store and manage HTML and XML files in the database, and an interface to Informix's MaxConnect middleware.

The new Foundation release offers up to 20 per cent better performance, needs 40 per cent less memory and can handle up to 23 per cent more users than the previous one, according to Informix. The increase in users is achieved via MaxConnect, which takes over from the database the chores of managing user connections. MaxConnect multiplexes many client connections over one or a few network connections.

Some say these e-commerce packages show that databases are becoming commodities: even Sybase's Chen says databases are "six of one and a half-dozen of the other". But others insist the demanding requirements of e-commerce make the technical details of the core database more, not less, important to business decision-makers.

"The Internet has re-accentuated some of the old values that made databases important in the first place, such as security, data integrity and availability," says Ken Jacobs, Oracle's vice president of product strategy.

"As a result, the differences in database features have become more important.

For example, are there features that let you administer the [e-commerce] database while it's up and running?"Consultant Mamet says most databases support Java, by letting you write programs called stored procedures, which run inside the database and act as instructions to the database to manipulate data in some particular way before delivering it to a requesting application. But if the Java Virtual Machine runs outside the database engine, performance can suffer. Likewise, Mamet says, if the vendor lets you write what are called user-defined functions and data types, in Java, programs become easier to write and to alter.

Enterprise users can expect more e-commerce features in database management systems, and more improvements to them mainly in two areas: Java and XML.

"We're on the verge of seeing the fruition of XML's promise," says Martin Marshall, managing director of Zona Research. "XML is the way to knit together disparate applications [and data] that were never designed [originally] to work together."The key to sorting through the database vendor hype about "Internet platforms" is a thorough understanding of your business problem, and of the e-commerce application you need to solve it.

"If I wanted to support a Java e-commerce application, I would have to look at my database, and ask: this is what I need to do, does the database support this, or do I have to program around it," Mamet says.

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