Database pioneers ponder future

While technologies such as microsensor-based data collection will present new trends in data management, relational databases are likely to endure, said panelists at a Computer History Museum gathering on Monday night.

Pioneers in relational database technology from companies such as Informix, Ingres, IBM, and Oracle gave their perspectives on future and historical trends in data management, including reflecting on the work of Ted Codd, considered the father of relational database technology.

Michael Stonebraker, a founder of Ingres and Illustra who also held executive positions at Informix, said he believed microsensors, which would be placed in various products and monitor commerce via geopositioning systems, could become a disruptive technology.

"You can imagine database systems will be the recipient of a billion streaming messages saying, 'Here I am and I go here,'" Stonebraker said.

Business process management also will become a trend, said Roger Sippl, founder of Informix. Web services currently present a veneer on top of business logic, but there will be a revolution coming on dealing with business processes, he said.

"I think there's going to be a simple, powerful model for doing that," Sippl said. "It'll have as big an impact as the relational database."

Another panelist, Pat Selinger, an IBM Fellow and vice president of data management architecture and technology at the company, noted that business analysis capabilities currently are being added to database systems, but concurred that business process management will be the next trend in database management.

But Chris Date, an associate of Codd and author of the book An Introduction to Database Systems, cautioned panelists not to count out relational technology.

"I would just like to interject a note of caution: Anybody that is starting to think about these new models must understand the relational model thoroughly. First, it may turn out that we already have the model that we need," Date said.

Relational databases can store immense quantities of data and keep historical records, he said, adding that the industry should make sure it really needs a new model for data management before inventing one.

"You can do things in the relational model. You do not need extensions to the relational model," Date said. "Business rules, I think, are totally compatible with the relational model."

Stonebraker also noted the importance of relational technology. "Ted Codd's contributions don't come along everyday. I don't see another thing coming at that level anytime soon," he said.

Stonebraker also had a word of caution for those who think Web services will become the dominant data integration technology.

"The mantra of the day is Web services, and I'd like to put in a highly cautionary note [about] Web services taking over the world," Stonebraker said. He added that issues such as semantics over records will hinder Web services. For example, a salary record in one enterprise may be defined differently at another, he said.

"These sort of semantic issues are going to plague Web services the minute you get beyond things like e-mail, which are just text-based services," Stonebraker said.

Relational database vendors, said Ken Jacobs, Oracle vice president of product strategy, have withstood challenges to the technology by adding functions such as security and spatial data management into their products. Jacobs concurred about continued relevance of relational technology. "I think the relational model is really fundamental, and as Chris said, we really can do an awful lot with it," Jacobs said.

An audience member charged the panel with having a one-size-fits-all approach to data management, namely promoting only relational technology. "The relational database seems to be the only answer," said the audience member, who then cited the Spires data management system as an alternative.

But Stonebraker said Spires was limited to textual data management. "I think Spires is a popular text processing system. I think one of the interesting observations to make is that structured data and text are on two different planets," he said.

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