Say Hello to ADO
- By Deborah Melewski
Microsoft Corp. has a history
of making things work. For example, the company is one of the few organizations
that has established de facto standards in the data access market. The
firm's Object Database Connectivity (ODBC) technology is an example of
Initially targeted as an access path to relational data, ODBC let users
break away from using any one particular database vendor. But the technology
is now encountering some limitations, as many current environments encompass
both relational and non-relational data.
This then is the goal of Microsoft's budding ActiveX Data Objects (ADO)
format, which seeks to abstract-out some deep programmatic interface issues.
Moreover, it supports many more diverse data types. As the Microsoft standard
is still young, pledges of third-party support are only beginning to come
online in the form of products.
"We found that data in the world is not living predominantly in
relational databases," said Dave Mendlen, Microsoft Visual Studio
product manager. The popularity of the Internet has only increased the
need to access non-relational data.
Redirecting its focus to a broader base of data sources, Microsoft introduced
OLE DB. For users, OLE DB works the same as ODBC, but in addition to relational
data it can access non-relational data. According to Mendlen, an example
of this is your mail system, which can have an OLE DB driver that can
talk to an index server. Web site data is captured in this way, and the
driver can then "cruise" through all of the data as though it
were a relational source. OLE DB specifies a set of Microsoft Component
Object Model (COM) interfaces that encapsulate database services.
In the process of moving toward OLE DB, however, users realized that
there were thousands of ODBC drivers on the market. Those in proprietary
formats had to be built by a developer, which required a great deal of
To help companies support both ODBC and non-relational data, Microsoft
built an OLE DB driver for ODBC Providers, which it then included in its
Visual Studio product. Also included in Visual Studio are ODBC drivers
to Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Access, Microsoft FoxPro, Oracle and
AS/400 Vsam databases. In addition, many third-party OLE DB Providers
and ODBC drivers are now available for Informix, Sybase, IBM DB2 and others.
The OLE DB Data Providers are actually direct interfaces between the application
and native data.
"Conceptually, as a developer you can still get to an ODBC data
source with OLE DB," said Mendlen. "We handle the translation.
We do recommend you go through OLE DB for better performance, though,
rather than using this extra layer."
ADO was born a little more than a year ago to simplify development by
talking to data objects by default. ADO Version 2.0 is built into Microsoft's
latest release of Visual Studio, Version 6.0. As a high-level interface,
ADO can be used by Visual Studio or any development tool to write database
But if ADO has been around for a year, why are companies just now getting
into it? "[Microsoft] released it to the public a year ago, but we
were careful about its positioning," said Mendlen. "We were
straightforward about it being a first release; we kept the volume low
because we were working toward a more strategic version."
ADO is a component of Microsoft's Universal Data Access strategy, a middleware-based
solution that provides standards-based access to all types of data, including
SQL relational, non-SQL and unstructured data in all types of applications.
ADO is a high-level interface for data objects, and is expected to replace
Data Access Objects (DAO) and Remote Data Objects (RDO) -- a COM interface
that had become very successful in the Visual Basic community -- over
ADO isolates programmers from OLE DB technology. It can also be implemented
across development tools, including Visual Basic, C and C++, Java and
so on. "ADO's job is to simplify access to OLE DB for developers,"
explained Mendlen. "ADO is an abstraction of interfaces that make
the difficult easy. But if a developer needs to talk to OLE DB directly,
they can. For example, some applications may require direct interfaces
because they are faster. On the other hand, those interfaces can be painful
and hard to program."
For example, some developers do not want to use the OLE DB and ADO level
of abstraction to get to data. The alternative, the native driver, may
be faster than talking through ODBC or OLE DB. According to Mendlen, it
depends a lot on how the driver was written. "Sometimes the OLE DB
or ODBC drivers are faster," he said. "But some native drivers
are built poorly. What it comes down to is that you can still have a huge
tradeoff. You are locked into proprietary databases and vendors with native
drivers," he explained.
Through ADO, built-in Remote Data Services (RDS) technology allows a
Notebook user to connect an application to the network. RDS copies the
database locally to the Notebook, then synchronizes changed data back
up to the network.
"The concept behind ADO is to take the simplicity of RDO, but simplify
it more," said Mendlen. "[RDO] wasn't as simple as it could
be. There were too many objects to deal with and understand."
According to Mendlen, the ADO model consists of seven objects. These
- Command Object -- holds the SQL query.
- Connection Object -- information associated with connecting to a database.
The Connection String has all of the data, while Open Connection makes
the connection. There is also built-in support for transaction management.Error
Objects -- anything that is broken is included here.
- Field or Collection Object -- handles the collection of fields; for
example, the name of an individual field and the value of that field.
- Parameter Object -- used to pass parameters.
- Record Set Object -- handles the cursors.
- Property Object -- where you can see relationships, find out the length
of a column and so on.
Mendlen admits that overhead was a problem in the initial release of
ADO. "There will always be some overhead, but we worked to make it
as small as possible in the new version," he said, adding that while
ADO is an added layer for OLE DB data access the productivity gain and
ease- of-use factors far outweigh any drawbacks.
Another problem may be the difficulty of actually getting into ADO from
other data access mechanisms, such as ADIS, VBSQL and DAO. "It won't
be as turnkey as it is in going from RDO, for example," said Mendlen.
"It will require some work."
Microsoft has been working with partners, including Rockville, Md.-based
Intersolv Inc., to help deliver on its Universal Data Access strategy.
Intersolv has been building APIs for many years, and worked closely with
Microsoft in developing ODBC and promoting SQL standards. Intersolv is
now leveraging that ODBC and OLE DB experience to extend ODBC to provide
seamless access to non-relational data.
"More than half the data in the world is not in Sybase, Oracle or
DB2," said Brian Reed, director of product management for DataDirect
at Intersolv. "There is a lot of data in Excel, on the desktop and
so on," he added.
ADO fits into Intersolv's DataDirect Connect products, with OLE DB connectivity;
and its DataLink SQL Link client/ server middleware products for large
servers. "Both of these products are at Version 2.0, and both support
the current version of OLE DB," said Reed.
Intersolv has also been working with COM technology for a long time.
According to Reed, COM is not the easiest technology to learn or work
with. "OLE DB with ADO is the way to do data access in COM environments,"
he said. What does this mean for cross-platform environments? According
to Reed, organizations will be able to leverage OLE DB to get to all types
of data from any Windows platform. "Many organizations must run Unix,
so they are cross-platform. We needed to make COM real for Unix, and OLE
DB available across platforms," he said.
An advantage in using OLE DB is the component assembly. "If you
go with pure COM components, we can provide data access components to
third parties looking to go from proprietary data stores to more open
OLE DB interface environments. You can mix and match components,"
For example, an organization can have interoperable components for SQL
and Vsam. "This is where the world is going," said Reed. "More
and more organizations are not building from scratch today; they want
When Visual Studio shipped in September, there was real interest in OLE
DB from Intersolv's customer base. "Now, SQL Server 7 is generating
interest, and Office 2000 shipped OLE DB enabled. We're seeing a huge
burst of interest. Many customers want detailed information on OLE DB,"
Reed added. "We're at the forefront of seeing OLE DB and ADO explode
onto the scene."
ADO is, however, still in the early adopter stage. "People are kicking
it around, learning it," said Reed. "Issues seem to be more
with how COM works. We're hearing good things about ADO, like [its] power
and ease of use."
ISG International Software Group Ltd., Burlington, Mass., also developed
its ISG Navigator multitiered, enterprise-wide database middleware solution
to conform to the OLE DB specification. The product is component-based,
and all APIs are OLE DB-based. Because ISG Navigator works directly with
Microsoft Visual Studio, it can be used to generate Web applications that
need to access an application. Customers are able to dial into a Web site
and access the back-end system using ISG Navigator.
"We chose OLE DB and ADO because the specification itself was broad
enough to cover both relational and non-relational data," said Steven
Fisch, ISG president. Because ISG Navigator uses a single source approach
to data no additional coding is required. "All the data sources appear
the same," said Fisch. "This reduces the overall cost of ownership
According to Fisch, developers and end users are able to connect to ISG
Navigator using a single interface to combine data platforms and data
types. ISG Navigator helps developers build applications that integrate
distributed, multiplatform data stores. The product also brings to the
table the ability to run across Alpha and Intel NT platforms, as well
as OpenVMS, Unix and Tandem.
ISG Navigator 1.6, the firm's newest version, is plug-compatible with
ADO 2.0. This lets ISG Navigator provide a range of data access and platform
interoperability support from a single interface. For example, Islandia,
N.Y.-based Computer Associates (CA) International Inc. even opted to use
the ISG Developers Kit to create its OLE DB Provider for CA Jasmine product.
Because many people have business objects they need to connect to, ISG
lets application code be wrapped as an OLE DB Provider and go back to
access data. ISG Navigator actually encapsulates that business rule as
an OLE DB Provider.
Fisch has seen increased interest in ADO the last nine months. "A
year ago, it was new to a lot of people. But we're seeing them get into
it. On our own Web site, we see some 150 downloads a day. Fifty of those
downloads are based on ADO interest from MSDN [Microsoft Developer Network]."
While Fisch has seen the many benefits of ADO, he has not seen much in
the way of challenges. "When Microsoft released ADO 1.0 and then
[Version] 1.5, they were using a big chunk of code and people did complain
about overhead in terms of footprint and performance," he said. "ADO
Version 2.0, we find, is as fast as writing C code, and it saves weeks
of writing development code."
Turner Broadcasting Sales, Atlanta, writes sales applications including
proposals, inventory control, order entry and stewardship applications
that are used in the advertising side of the company. According to Matthew
Drooker, the company's director of technology implementation, Turner Broadcasting
Sales had been using Microsoft DAO and RDO technologies since 1992. When
ADO was initially released, said Drooker, the firm chose to stay with
RDO because it supported his need to handle disconnected record sets.
"The stewardship applications are very intensive, because they do
much culling of data," he said. "They are used to take out a
spot that ran. If we guarantee how many people will watch a commercial,
for example, and it's not [true], we have reconciling to make up the spot."
Specifically, what Drooker required was the ability to pass record sets
intrinsically between machine boundaries, or tiers. When Microsoft began
to change the way to get at data, ADO took on the disconnected record
set ability as well. "We then started to migrate from RDO to ADO,
and used disconnected record sets to effectively, and easily, marshal
the data in our tiers," said Drooker.
"We could take a record set, get data for the tables and pass it
as a parameter without having to write code," he explained. "When
we did three-tier with RDO, we had to disassemble and then rebuild it
into a manageable component."
This new ability of ADO helped to shrink down a bit of code. Prior to
that, Drooker was dealing with a lot of overhead, especially when working
with large numbers of records. ADO has helped a lot in storing and moving
data around, he said.
Today, Turner Broadcasting Sales is using SQL Server and Microsoft Access
on the same local machine. Because it is all relational data, ADO's ability
to access non-relational data has not been of significance to the company
thus far. Drooker noted that the company does use Microsoft Exchange,
and that perhaps several months out the non-relational aspect may be a
consideration. Support for the Internet and/or JDBC has also not been
a factor. "Our applications are rich in GUI and functionality, and
they need a lot of state," said Drooker. "The Internet model
doesn't fit for us."
Drooker is pleased with ADO's capabilities, and has had only one problem.
"We had to be sure ADO 2.0 on all our clients could do binds before
we installed it on the servers," he said. "We had some compatibility
problems between Versions 2.0 and 1.5 on the client."
On the COM side, Drooker has found everything "under the covers"
with ADO. "We're all COM here," he said. "With ADO, if
COM jumps through hoops, I don't have to. It's very similar to OLE DB;
ADO handles all of that.
"We're very happy with ADO so far," he added. "It makes
sense to developers, and it cleaned up development."
On the radar screen
VIE Systems, Lyndhurst, N.J., provides the Copernicus messaging middleware
product for integrating disparate applications. "Copernicus is a
mature product, built five years ago," said Kevin Lupowitz, vice
president of product development. "It was built without presumptions
of standards, tools and applications. We built it on our own abstraction
for accessing databases, then embedded SQL to get to SQL databases."
However, the company has made the decision not to go with ADO right now.
"This decision was made for a number of reasons," explained
Lupowitz. For example, he said, "we do most of our builds on Unix
systems. ADO is a Microsoft product and more NT-centric."
VIE Systems' "initial feedback of ADO was that it was well thought
out and definitely has a place in the market," said Lupowitz. "Because
Microsoft is strongly backing ADO there is a good chance that down the
line we will look to adopt it. It will replace DAO."
In the meantime, if a customer wanted ADO, according to Lupowitz, the
company could easily bolt it in. "We haven't had any demand for it
yet," he said. "But we are starting to work with some new customers
that are building new applications, and they will want their application
integration tool to support ADO."
Some of ADO's benefits, as cited by Lupowitz, include having one interface
to support instead of a lot of APIs. "With one code base you can
support all databases," he said. "It also takes away the complexity
of coding so, for example, you don't have to have an Oracle expert, a
Sybase expert and so on." For now, ADO remains on the company's radar
ADO vs. DAO
Video Software, Emeryville, Calif., provides ADO and OLE DB components
to Microsoft Visual Studio programmers. The company's VideoSoft VSFlex
Grid Pro product integrates with any Visual Studio application and provides
developers with a turnkey way for users to access all forms of stored
data. It also provides them with a way to customize the layout of the
"We do components for other developers," said Gustavo Eydelsteyn,
president of Video Software. "ADO is a simplified object model, and
it is familiar to Visual Studio developers. But it has a broader reach
than its predecessor, DAO, and uses one syntax."
According to Eydelsteyn, ODBC provided access to only certain databases.
"With ADO, we can have non-traditional data sources; for example,
Lotus Notes and Outlook. With ADO, we can have a universal data connection
model, but we can do it all with the same model. This was
really needed," he said.
The most-requested item from Video Software's customer base was the ability
to have disconnected record sets. "For example," said Eydelsteyn,
"laptop and portable computer users can disconnect, and later work
with it on the mainframe. This is a big plus for end users. Now programmers
can add that functionality," he said.
"We can connect to any data provider of ADO, and show the data grid
mode with our tools," said Eydelsteyn. The firm also licenses its
FlexGrid technology to Micro- soft, which has added the product to the
Visual Studio box as Microsoft FlexGrid.
Benefits outweigh problems
Observers agree that the benefits of ADO outweigh the few problem areas,
such as overhead and binding issues. And Microsoft's overall goal with
ADO -- to completely isolate developers from the underlying OLE DB and
ODBC technologies -- has been eagerly embraced by developers.
"ADO is a revolution, a way to get to different types of data,"
said Intersolv's Reed. "Developers are happy to have one universal
way to get to data without having to learn all [of the] different APIs."
The end result, said Reed, is that it is easier to train staff and leverage
Microsoft's Mendlen expects that more and more developers will begin
to work with the latest version of ADO, now that Visual Studio has brought
the technology to the forefront. "With ADO 2.0, which was released
with Visual Studio 6.0, we turned the volume up to high," said Mendlen.
"We have good, stable code now."