Oracle's iFS Finally Arrives

After the initial announcement in September 1998 and many long months of waiting, Oracle Corp. has at last released its Internet file system (iFS). But according to Oracle, the wait for a new document file system has been longer than a few months.

Many companies store their high value data in relational databases, while their high volume data -- such as Word, Excel, or e-mail documents -- is put into a file system. The problem as Oracle saw it was that the current Windows-type file system employed by most people wasn't up to par. "We looked at this and realized the file system isn't up to the task. It is stodgy and has been around as long as the OS," says Steve McAdams, vice president of iFS at Oracle (

The company felt that since the amount of information available has increased because of the Internet, the way that data is stored and accessed should change too. Once the decision was made to change the file system, Oracle had to undergo an enormous task -- provide users with the ability to access a database that contained both high value and high volume documents while also giving them a familiar and simple interface to work with.

Databases have powerful capabilities, but access to information has always been through a complicated SQL interface or through an Oracle network protocol. "We looked at it this way and decided we needed to build the ability into Oracle 8I for it to look like a file system. So it's actually a database but looks like a network drive, that's what it's all about," McAdams says.

When changing the file system Oracle wanted to accomplish a number of different things. First they wanted it to be part of a database -- the obvious one being Oracle 8I -- so the new file system would have all the capabilities of a relational database management system (RDBMS). This included XML support and a file system with the ability to manage XML documents. IFS needed to be accessible from any desktop or Web browser. It also needed to provide content management, security, and a development platform with scriptable database capabilities, including support for SQL and Java.

One of the most important things Oracle wanted to do was develop a new file system that was similar enough to the old one that users wouldn't shy away from it. To do this, Oracle had to study the file system that has been around for over 20 years. One of the main reasons the delivery of iFS was so late was because of the amount of time it them to research the old system. "Basically it was because there was a lot of technology, and we just wanted to get it right," says Tom Grant, director of product management iFS at Oracle. "Not only did we want to do it right, but we wound up spending a lot of time figuring out how Microsoft's file system works."

But Josh Walker, analyst at Forrester Research Inc. ( believes the arrival of iFS was well worth the wait. "I can tell you an analyst's point of view, this is where everyone wanted Oracle's iFS to evolve to. Our developers were waiting for this. We were impressed, and now everyone agrees this is great functionality."

IFS enables users to store all data -- relational and high volume documents -- in one central Web accessible repository. Oracle sees this new system as useful for anyone who uses a file system -- which is almost everyone.

While Oracle is one of the first companies to deliver a new file system, they will not be the only one. "We are looking at an overarching trend," Walker says. Both Microsoft Corp. and Lotus have initiatives for new systems.

"I don't think this [iFS] is revolutionary, but this is the first in the trend that is going to continue. They [Oracle] are also working on getting more XML support, and that is a trend now as well," Walker says.