Taking From the Operating System, Giving to the Database

As many opponents of Windows NT place their hopes for its demise on the free Linux operating system, vocal Microsoft Corp. critic Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corp., has launched an assault on the operating system from an unlikely quarter: the database. Several analysts say the most interesting feature of Oracle’s latest database upgrade, Oracle8i, is its Internet File System (iFS), which steals the file system function from the operating system and gives it to the database.

"I really like the Internet File System," says Anne Thomas, an analyst with Patricia Seybold Group (Boston). "You can store pretty much anything, any URL entity, in the database and automatically get all of the famous family values of a database."

The iFS is designed to combine the power, security, and backup and restore capabilities of a database with the ease of use of a traditional file system. Users may drag and drop 35 proprietary Windows file formats, including Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint, into the iFS. Authorized users can then search and view the files from any computer through a standard Web browser, according to Oracle.

The iFS was not built into the version of Oracle8i being released toward the end of the year and will be shipped as a "developers version’’ when Oracle 8i comes out.

"A database is a much better place to keep your data than a file system," Ellison said at a New York news conference to announce Oracle8i in mid-September. "[Oracle8i] competes most directly with NT Server. SQL Server is a very tiny product that almost no one uses."

At least one analyst firm is supporting the view that an Oracle file system could help deflate the role of operating systems. "Hurwitz Group [Framingham, Mass.] feels that bundling a virtual file system with the Oracle database may lead to a reduced role for operating systems, which would take a bite out of Microsoft and other OS providers," The Hurwitz Trend Watch reported on Sept. 25.

Hurwitz analyst Robert Craig also says the Oracle file system should help companies trying to deploy extranet applications with customers or suppliers. "File systems like NT aren’t distributable. They’re fine in a local-area network, but they don’t support access via TCP," Craig says. "A secure intranet-enabled file system would be very, very useful."

Oracle is not the only database vendor to assume some file management features, says Jeff Jones, program director, IBM Corp. data management marketing, software solutions division. Following the Oracle announcement, IBM launched version 5.2 of its DB2 Universal Database. Jones says the version introduces the DataLinks Manager for the AIX platform with support for Windows NT and other platforms to follow. DataLinks gives DB2 comprehensive control over external data in the areas of referential integrity, access control, coordinated backup and recovery, and transaction consistency, but leaves files in the operating system. "Customers were asking for rapid ease to get everything started," says Jones, adding that the Oracle approach goes beyond what customers want.

Carl Olofson, an analyst with International Data Corp. (IDC, Framingham, Mass.), says the Oracle release explains some of the features available in Oracle8: "Prior to that point it had been possible to store PC files in the database, but why would you want to do that? With this facility, you basically use the database as a file system. It gives you, over the top of a normal file system, the ability to do rapid searches, retrievables. Those are pretty good benefits that people can take advantage of without a lot of database design to maximize the use of their ordinary PC files."

Still, Olofson says system overhead could present a problem with the Oracle approach. "My suspicion is that there comes a point where there is a trade-off." While Yankee Group (Boston) analyst Colin Mahoney calls Oracle8i a "good announcement," he shares the concern about overhead. Mahoney says it makes little difference whether the file system is embedded in a feature-heavy operating system or the Oracle database: "Either way, you’re getting a bloated product that’s trying to be all things to all people, and I’m not sure that’s the best solution."

Seybold’s Thomas views that piling on of features in the database as a return to database machines, an idea that gained momentum about 8 years ago but waned because processors weren’t powerful enough to run both a database server and an application server from one machine. Now the processors are powerful enough, she says. "I think Larry [Ellison] has made a dramatic shift in the way people think about databases," Thomas says. "[Oracle] is doing a database server and an application server and an Internet file server."