Integrator Toolbox: New crop of systems bring more features

What are they? Enterprise database management systems serve up to thousands of networked users. They run on single servers or multiple servers organized in clusters. Most can run on a variety of operating systems.

What's established? Relational databases are the most widely used. They can handle immense amounts of data and easily be queried through the use of Structured Query Language, or SQL. Most support advanced data management features and are Web-friendly.

What's new? Post-relational databases are object-oriented and go well beyond the limits of traditional relational databases. They are suited for managing enterprise e-business requirements. XML is an open standard for storing, exchanging and publishing any kind of information; XML databases could be the future of database technology.

Must-know info? The ability to handle rich data, including audio, video and multimedia, will be a requirement of all database systems before long. Most relational database vendors now provide XML extensions to their core systems, and it won't be long before more native XML database programs come to market.

At first glance, enterprise database systems seem to be super-sized versions of popular desktop database applications, such as Microsoft Access. But they have distinct differences.

Database systems for the enterprise are highly scalable, meaning they can serve 10 or 20 users in a small workgroup or be upgraded to meet the needs of hundreds or thousands of networked users.

Desktop databases typically cost several hundred dollars each, but enterprise database servers can cost thousands of dollars per server, depending on the number of licenses required or the options added to the core program.

And unlike desktop databases, enterprise database programs are notoriously difficult to set up and manage. Even midsize enterprises generally require at least one database administrator to keep the programs up and running.

But the job of an enterprise database also is considerably more daunting. And considering government agencies' needs to collect, store, transform and transmit huge amounts of information, databases are absolutely essential.

Several classifications of databases are available. Of these, relational database management systems are far and away the most popular. But gaining momentum are two types more suited to the Web: post-relational object databases and XML databases.

Unlike two-dimensional flat-file databases, in which all data is stored in a single file, relational databases store data in multiple flat files connected by shared data fields called keys. Users can query these files by using a language, usually structured query language, understood by all related databases. With the help of SQL, a standardized query language, relational databases can provide an array of information to users who may or may not understand how a database works.

The market for relational database management systems is robust and growing steadily. Enterprises worldwide spent $8.8 billion on these systems in 2001 and will spend nearly $20 billion by 2006, according to International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass., research firm.

Interestingly, while the market for the software is growing at a healthy pace, the number of vendors is shrinking.

Last year, only four database vendors accounted for more than 80 percent of the total amount of money spent on relational database management systems worldwide, according to Gartner Inc., a market research company in Stamford, Conn. Oracle Corp., maker of Oracle9i Database, accounted for 33.8 percent. IBM's DB2 Universal Database 7.2, had 30.1 percent. Microsoft's SQL Server 2000 SP2 came in with 14.9 percent. Sybase Inc.'s Adaptive Enterprise 12.5 came in fourth with a 3.9 percent market share but is still considered a market leader.

All four companies have zeroed in on several keys to success in the database market:

Internet use. Enterprises will succeed or fail according to their ability to share information online.

SQL. Virtually all relational databases support this standard language for querying database files. In fact, many users now use the terms "SQL database" and "relational database" interchangeably.

Transaction processing. Handling multiple transactions simultaneously is the bread and butter of relational database management systems. Online transaction processing and transaction logs are built into all the major relational databases.

Manageability. The technology isn't known for being user-friendly. Most systems require a skilled administrator who keeps the database software up and running and trains new users. The best relational database software contains advanced wizards that guide users through complex tasks, such as database and table creation or Web publishing. Graphical tools are also part of the arsenal.

Data security. A good relational database provides safety checks whenever data is changed. Most write data to a transaction log as well as to the database itself. If a mistake occurs as a result of a series of database commands, the commands can be rolled back in order until the error is corrected. Software and hardware fault tolerance, as well as various levels of administrator-defined password protection, is also built into most software programs.

Advanced data management. A growing trend is built-in support for advanced data management features such as data warehousing, data analysis and data mining. Microsoft built limited support for data warehousing and online analytical processing into earlier versions of SQL Server and has enhanced them in its latest version. Oracle and IBM have followed suit.

Open source. To meet demands for open systems software, proprietary database software makers have added support for open standards such as Java and extensible markup language.

As good as it is, the technology has limits. Relational databases only understand limited and simple types of data, such as integers, dates and character strings. More complex data types, such as those used in e-commerce and Web applications, require new database architectures.

According to the Aberdeen Group Inc., a Boston market research company, object-oriented databases are designed to support the complex logic and rapid deployment of Web applications, as well as Web tools such as XML and Web services.

"The new databases are 'low profile.' They can be embedded in the Web application, allowing low administrative costs and higher performance," an Aberdeen report said.

InterSystems Corp.'s Cache 5, for example, is a popular post-relational object database that combines object, SQL and multidimensional technologies.

Cache 5 includes relational capabilities but focuses on complex transactions. New features include a redesigned engine for greater performance and scalability, server pages for enhanced Web programming, real-time search capability for combined decision support and transaction processing, multilingual programming and enhanced XML object connections.

Relational database systems are well-suited to manage data that fits into rows and columns, but they fail when called on to manage rich data such as audio, video, nested data structures or complex documents. All are characteristic of Web content.

The XML standard is an open standard for storing, publishing and exchanging any kind of information. It lets business information be made independent from proprietary data formats and to remain readable forever.

Some industry insiders are calling XML the most significant change in computing since the invention of relational databases and SQL.

As a result, many vendors are jumping onto the XML bandwagon by building special XML extensions into their core products. This move is a step in the right direction, but will result in products that will never be as cost-effective and robust as native XML databases, according to Software AG and other XML developers.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@hawaii.rr.com.

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