A Turning Point for OLE DB

Considering the industry’s preoccupation with Microsoft Corp.’s maneuvering around the DOJ proceedings and the release of beta 2 of Windows NT 5.0, last week’s Developer Days event and the accompanying Visual Studio 6.0 launch had to compete to get its fair share of attention.

While the launch of the new version of Visual Studio is an important event for most programmers who develop for Microsoft environments, it also could prove to be the turning point for another new technology that will affect end users.

That technology is OLE DB. When OLE DB becomes as pervasive as ODBC is today, access to data sources that traditionally have been difficult to reach from desktop systems will become much easier.

The term OLE DB was first introduced several years back, and the first "general release" versions of developer toolkits were available at least 2 years ago from Microsoft. Yet the use of OLE DB has remained virtually nonexistent in the industry, in part because the OLE DB specification was a moving target.

We may now be reaching the first plateau of stability.

Across the Visual Studio suite, programmers are now encouraged to go through the Active Data Objects (ADO) interface to get their data. ADO, which is a so-called OLE DB consumer, in turn uses OLE DB to gain access to data sources. ADO can also be used to access existing ODBC resources.

Microsoft positions OLE DB as a universal data provider. Accordingly, a major motivation of Microsoft’s OLE DB push is to reach nonrelational data sources such as OLAP data. There is an extension to OLE DB called OLE DB for OLAP, which enables access to OLAP resources. Microsoft provides OLE DB drivers for ODBC, Oracle, Microsoft Jet and SQL Server.

Because of the integrated support for OLE DB in Visual Studio, most products built using Visual Studio will probably take advantage of OLE DB in their next release. Nevertheless, many industry observers believe Excel 98 will be the killer application that makes OLE DB an absolute necessity. Microsoft’s much-anticipated Plato OLAP tool will follow the Excel 98 launch, and will give Excel a Microsoft OLAP engine to access.

Until recently, most vendors have been reluctant to rely heavily on OLE DB. However, this is changing, and ENT’s editors recently have been briefed by a number of vendors aligning themselves with the OLE DB freight train. One such vendor, OLE DB toolkit vendor Simba Technologies Inc. (Vancouver, British Columbia, www.simba.com) last week announced availability of its Simba Provider toolkit.

Simba Technologies also named some of its customers that have developed OLE DB providers using its toolkit, including NCR Corp. (Dayton, Ohio, www.ncr.com), which created an OLE DB for OLAP interface to its TeraCube OLAP engine.

Other vendors that you would expect to be involved with OLE DB, such as Intersolv Inc. (Rockville, Md., www.intersolv.com), are gearing up as well.

What’s really going to be interesting is some of the new kinds of data that will become available to your applications through OLE DB. Valley Forge, Pa.-based Blue Angel Software (www.blueangeltech.com), a vendor that specializes in managing metadata in Internet and intranet environments, unveiled its OLE DB provider, called MetaDoor. This OLE DB provider exposes Z39.50-compliant data located on the Internet to OLE DB consumers. Z39.50 is a standard used by universities and government organizations to catalog library data stores for easy online retrieval.

OLE DB sounds great, and it is for Windows users. The downside is that OLE DB, as with many other technologies that Microsoft heavily promotes, will help Microsoft maintain its death-grip on the desktop computer. Once a significant base of OLE DB providers is available, Microsoft is virtually guaranteed a lock on the desktop for another long window of time.