2003 InfoWorld Innovator: Kingsley Idehen

OpenLink Software's CEO followed his scientific instincts to build Virtuoso, a wildly innovative virtual database for SQL, XML, and Web services

Kingsley Idehen had planned to become a genetic engineer. But when he wound up in the business world instead, his instincts led him straight to the heart and soul of business: accounting. While learning the ropes, he became fascinated with IT infrastructure.

A formative influence, Informix intrigued Idehen with its ability to pull information from a database and pump it into a spreadsheet that an accountant could analyze. At the same time, he couldn't understand why "the simplest things cost a hell of lot of money and take an inordinate amount of time," he says.

After he mastered Xenix, SQL, and Informix's Uniplex business software, Idehen began to see what was wrong: The vendors didn't understand the business problems their products were meant to solve. So he became a programmer in the late 1980s and, before long, was working for Unisys as a database integration expert.

Working with the Progress database, Progress has a rich language and an environment for creating business applications, although other databases such as Oracle and Informix were more popular. Database middleware was the missing link. With his new drivers, Idehen demonstrated using Excel on Windows and on the Mac at a show in Munich, Germany, in 1992. Idehen found the opportunity that would eventually launch OpenLink Software in Burlington, Mass.

"My cheap little table was crowded," Idehen recalls. It was clear he had a talent for writing database drivers. The skill, he says, is "to make a driver represent the community that it serves." In other words, a Progress driver had to behave the way a Progress programmer expects it to.

At the same time, Microsoft's evangelization of ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) was taking root. Whereas ODBC got a bad rap for being slow, OpenLink built a reputation for making high-performance drivers. Idehen still wasn't satisfied, because ODBC could only connect to one database at a time. As the Web emerged, it became clear that businesses would increasingly need to connect to many different data sources.

"Knowing all those databases intimately, it was easy for me to visualize the concept of a virtual database," Idehen says. Idehen went shopping for an engine on which to base such a product and settled on Kubl -- a fast, portable, ODBC-aware SQL database. Never heard of it? That's because Idehen snapped it up as soon as he found it.

In 1999, OpenLink emerged with the concept that has since evolved into Virtuoso 3.0. At the core, it's a SQL engine that not only supports ODBC but can attach foreign databases through ODBC. Then came the layers: an e-mail server, a news server, an application server, a SOAP stack, Java and .NET bindings, a WebDAV server, and XML storage, indexing, and transformation. The goal was always business process integration, but that was difficult to explain. Then in January of 2003, IBM "decided to regurgitate Data Joiner -- and they used the magic words 'virtual database,'" That was the validation Idehen was looking for.

"Heterogeneity is a fact of corporate life," Idehen says. Now that he's built a platform that consumes and provides SQL, XML, and Web services, Idehen has come full circle. He's finally ready to make business data represent the community that it serves.

(For profiles of the other nine 2003 InfoWorld Innovators, see Honoring the Innovators.)