Can Viper put the bite on Oracle, SQL Server?

Analysts are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for IBM's latest database

According to Jeff Jones, IBM’s director of data server strategy, the new DB2 is no ordinary upgrade. Five years in development, DB2 9.1 is one of the most significant releases in the product’s history.

“DB2 has evolved into what we’re calling a hybrid data server. It’s no longer just about rows and columns of alphanumeric data,” Jones says. “XML information no longer needs to be broken into parts and put in rows and columns; it can be stored as XML. So DB2 expands its reach to be both a relational table manager and an XML manager.”

But will customers be convinced? Although hybrid XML/relational applications might sound attractive, the potential for increased complexity is a menacing pitfall. Many developers may prefer to stick to more familiar, time-tested methods.

Yet some analysts are decidedly bullish. “My personal view -- just a guess, really -- is that there will be far more of these [hybrid applications] than people expect,” says Philip Howard of Bloor Research. “If that’s true, it could certainly have a major impact on Oracle and Microsoft.”

Gartner distinguished analyst Donald Feinberg describes DB2 9.1 as “the most sophisticated XML implementation at this time.” But, he adds, “SQL Server is close and Oracle is about a full release away.” Thus, although DB2 9.1’s XML capabilities may be its most revolutionary new technology, the other improvements it brings under the hood may be the most significant.

“Databases are often the performance bottleneck in major systems,” explains Wayne Kernochan, president of Infostructure Associates. This means that significant performance improvements in the database can have a major impact on applications -- and in DB2’s case, one application in particular.

“For obvious reasons, Oracle is not the flavor of the month with SAP, and SAP is working closely with IBM and DB2,” Howard says. “The key feature is that DB2 knows about the SAP environment and therefore can automate tuning, default settings, installation, and so on for SAP.”

Gartner’s Feinberg agrees. “The SAP part is really important as SAP moves to get its users away from Oracle and onto DB2 or Microsoft,” he says.

Howard cites other performance improvements in DB2 9.1 that could be attractive to the data warehousing market. Kernochan, on the other hand, suggests that DB2 may have the greatest advantage in OLTP (online transaction processing) and mixed processing environments, which are becoming increasingly predominant.

Clearly IBM is applying its development energy in the right places. But in the highly competitive relational database market, DB2 still has a tough battle ahead. “Users are slow to change databases; rather, the movement in the market comes from new applications,” Kernochan says. “Given this market ‘stickiness,’ the real question is longer-term, two years down the pike: Can IBM sustain any advantages it gains, to achieve a real market shift?”