If at first you don't succeed...
Other than Microsoft, the
long-running software story of the last quarter century has been the database
business. For much of the period, the relational database has been dominant.
Through the years, experts have touted object-oriented databases and hybrid
object-relational systems as potential replacements, but to date none
The top relational database players have quietly started re-emphasizing
object-relational technologies with the emergence of corporate Internet
computing, but all are treading lightly due to past missteps. The term
object relational has suffered a series of severe blows during the past
few years for several reasons, such as Oracle failing to ship a promised
system and Informix's doomed strategy to transform its full focus to object
"The chalice has been poisoned, so to speak," said David Wells,
an analyst at Ovum, a London-based consulting firm. "Oracle 8i has
some interesting pieces of object technology, Microsoft with OLE DB has
a whole range of object features and Sybase is adding object technology.
But they are choosing not to talk about it because of the perception of
The emergence of the Internet, the popularity of Java and some upcoming
new database versions from Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif., IBM and
Informix Inc., Menlo Park, Calif., could allow these newer hybrid systems
to succeed where others have failed, say observers. Oracle plans to ship
what it calls an Internet database, the object-relational Oracle 8i, later
this spring. The new Oracle database incorporates the interMedia technology
previously sold as an option for storing multimedia data types, and adds
Java technology to the kernel. The new strategy is seen as the top DBMS
vendor's strong embrace of object technology.
Informix and IBM also expect the spread of Internet-based applications
to widen demand for their respective universal database technologies.
Observers expect Microsoft Corp. to stake a claim in the object-relational
territory, perhaps integrating the OLE DB and Microsoft Data Access technologies
into the SQL Server DBMS. The universal database strategy of Sybase Inc.,
Emeryville, Calif., is unclear.
"We still see growth," said Jeffrey Jones, program manager
for IBM data management marketing. "The Universal database capabilities
are not the only reason to buy a database, the [object] extenders [to
DB2] are a bonus, a checklist item. Use of the extenders is growing nicely,
slowly but steadily."
Meanwhile, three-year-old Cloudscape Inc., Oakland, Calif., has built
an object-relational database from scratch to take advantage of the emerging
Frank Greco, founder and chief executive of Crossroads Technologies,
a New York City-based systems integrator, said the Cloudscape system is
ideal for financial services firms. Java has spread quickly through the
business while any database has to support SQL, which is a standard at
most financial services firms.
Informix has signed an agreement with Cloudscape to utilize its Java
technology in its new Centaur database, which joins the Universal and
Dynamic Server products. David Applebaum, Informix vice president of product
marketing and management, said the new system, set to ship by the end
of 1999, will also incorporate Microsoft's ActiveX and COM technology.
While vendors are now convinced that Internet computing will boost the
necessity of universal systems, Wells of Ovum said users must still be
convinced of the need. "This isn't a great leap. Object relational
does just a bit more than relational. There is a need for the [object-relational]
technology, and it will increase as more Web-based applications are built,"
"There is a somewhat increased demand for bject-relational systems,"
added Carl Olafson, an analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC), a Framingham,
Mass.-based consulting firm, "particularly in some specialized vertical
niches. Any mainstream acceptance will be driven by widespread adoption
of Web technology."
According to Olafson, the timetable for widespread acceptance of what
IDC calls "Cybersmart Computing" is still two to three years
away. In the meantime, relational databases will remain the standard,
he said. To date, most observers expect today's top makers of relational
systems, primarily Oracle and IBM, to hold a clear advantage in providing
products for the new paradigm.
Meanwhile, top database suppliers have an opportunity to generate sales
in niches once confined to OODBMS systems, said Arthur Berrill, director
of the SpatialWare product line and chief developer for spatial technology
at MapInfo Corp., a Troy, N.Y.-based maker of business mapping software.
"Years ago, the spatial niche could be handled by pure object technology,"
he said. About six years ago, MapInfo built object extensions to Oracle.
A little more than 18 months ago, MapInfo decided that Oracle, IBM and
Informix could provide the necessary object extensions and began bundling
those products with its MapInfo software. "Today, we expect the database
vendor to provide the object-relational extensions," Berrill said.
MapInfo also plans to evaluate Microsoft's SQL Server 7.0 database, which
continues to utilize add-on products like OLE DB and Microsoft Data Access
to add Universal server capabilities. "Our multimedia support is
still outside the database," said Jose Blakely, senior architect
on the SQL Server development team. "More and more people want the
ability to have the logic run inside the server, and we see that as a
Efforts to supplant relational systems about a decade ago by a group
of object-oriented DBMS start-ups (most with the word "object"
in their title) proved fruitless. Oracle, IBM and Informix responded to
the OODBMS challenge by adding object capabilities to relational databases,
thus claiming to eliminate the need for the new systems. While that effort
did not crush the OODBMS revolution, it pretty much eliminated any chance
of those systems reaching the mainstream. "The object database market
is small but steady, it's a niche market," said Mary Hope, a senior
analyst at Ovum. "We see nothing to suggest the technology will become
Object database technology does have its champions, including software
giant Computer Associates International Inc., Islandia, N.Y., which called
off an effort to add object extensions to its Ingres database in favor
of developing Jasmine, a pure OODBMS. "We had to make compromises
on both the object and relational side," said Carl Hartman, CA's
vice president of information management marketing, of the effort to build
a hybrid system.
Rousseau Aurelien, chief executive at WebEnsemble, a New York City maker
of digital asset and knowledge management tools, says "the hype around
object relational is one of my pet peeves." Aurelien's product line
incorporates CA's Jasmine. "The existence of object relational shows
the need for pure object-oriented databases. Object relational still requires
a lot more programming than object databases."
Adds Wells of Ovum, "The object database vendors have a number of
important opportunities -- the Web is an opportunity for them. But they
do face significant competition from relational vendors. Unless they can
do something big, then Oracle will be perceived as good enough."
Despite the early hype from Oracle, Informix and IBM, IT organizations
have so far failed to buy into the need for the universal database technology
in any significant numbers. These early efforts to add object capabilities
to relational systems failed for a variety of reasons. Ovum's Hope maintains
that object-relational technology has always been valid for IT organizations,
but that sales "problems started with the way vendors positioned
it. Instead of stressing business benefits, they confused the market by
talking about the wonderfulness of the technology."
IDC's Olafson added that "universal systems require a fair amount
of knowledge of complex data types and specialized programming skills.
A lot of organizations just didn't feel they had a need for this."
The failure of Informix's highly publicized effort to shift its focus
from relational to object relational about three years ago has been well
documented. Not only did the new technology fail to catch on, sales of
the Informix relational technology flagged due to inattention. The calamity
led to significant losses, a drop in revenue, management departures and
shareholder lawsuits. "Informix did an awesome job of building object
extensions," said Berrill of MapInfo. "Informix forged the direction,
but suffered an enormous amount."
Under new leadership, Informix has radically shifted its focus, twice
repositioning its product lines, and has returned to revenue growth and
Oracle's Larry Ellison proclaimed his firm's plan for object-relational
databases shortly after the birth of the OODBMS market, but the plans
faded quickly -- especially after the Informix debacle. "We've seen
a lot of changes over the last 18 months to two years," said Dom
Linders, director of industry marketing at Oracle.
Oracle 8i has caught the attention of some users. "Oracle 8i is
fundamental to our future direction," said Berrill of MapInfo. "It's
clearly a step in the right direction to put the Java technology into
However, a few more steps need to be taken before the technology can
enter the mainstream.