When worlds collide

Overcoming technical, and human, obstacles to better technology

Whether you're talking astronomy, politics, or technology, the best fireworks usually come from the collision of two great but incompatible systems. This issue of InfoWorld offers four examples from today’s IT.

Sean McCown’s cover story, “Databases flex their XML,” documents the collision between leading relational databases and the newer standards associated with XML.

The four commercial titans Sean reviews, databases from Oracle, IBM, Sybase, and Microsoft, grew up in a world where information was captured, cleansed, and then fixed into a structure like an insect on a pin. XML, in contrast, has evolved to deal with data in its more natural form -- as scraps of information embedded in random, unrelated documents.

The good news is that three of the four products have adapted well. And the laggard -- Microsoft’s SQL Server -- may catch up by mid-2005. But for anyone whose company must integrate relational with XML storage now, Sean’s detailed comparative study is a must-read.

Chad Dickerson describes a similar, albeit smaller, collision in his CTO Connection column. The column describes InfoWorld’s recent, painful attempt to implement a standard POP3 or IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) mail server using proprietary technology -- and our eventual decision to use open source instead.

Our goal was simply to deliver e-mail to managers on the road. Chad describes the unexpected hassles from the IT perspective. As a willing volunteer, I can attest to the users’ pain too -- such as running through four different mobile e-mail clients in two weeks.

In Strategic Developer, Jon Udell highlights another interesting collision involving e-mail -- the problems that result from using it to ferry not only text but also pictures, sound files, PowerPoints, “special offers,” and whatnot. Jon’s column is a reminder that human factors often outweigh machine factors in determining which technology really works.

The human element also figures strongly in the collision described by Tom Yager in Ahead of the Curve, who has clearly been spending too much time watching C-SPAN. Tom points out that the challenge security officials faced in trying to avert a terrorist attack like Sept. 11 is similar to that faced by the average executive trying to make sense of corporate data.

One obvious strategy is to pull the various data stores together. But that requires overcoming human as well as technological hurdles -- in particular, people’s territorial nature, secretiveness, and inertia.

That may be one reason why the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies have moved their counterterrorism operations into a single building, Tom notes. Sometimes rubbing elbows in the cafeteria does more to promote data sharing than a whole raft of technological advances such as the relational/XML products described above.