IBM and Microsoft Crank up the Pressure on Rivals

IBM and Microsoft made significant data management-related announcements last week

The spotlight was on data management last week as both IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. made significant database- and business intelligence-related announcements.

Microsoft Corp. kicked things off—and dropped a bombshell on an entire industry—when it outlined an Office-focused BI and performance-management (PM) strategy that catapults it squarely into competition with the big BI pure play vendors.

Big Blue followed up by announcing the version 9.1 release of its DB2 database, which boasts native support for XML data types, improved compression, and accelerated performance.

Microsoft’s BI bombshell—which it’s officially dubbed Office PerformancePoint Server 2007—draws on assets it acquired from the former ProClarity Corp just two months ago. Redmond bills PerformancePoint as a one-stop shop for PM, complete with scorecarding, analytics, and planning capabilities.

Microsoft officials hope the combination of Office, ProClarity’s analytic muscle, and its own homegrown planning technology could make for a hard-to-beat PM value proposition. “It will be a holistic performance management application, designed to cover the entire performance management cycle, [providing] tracking via scorecards, doing deep analysis through analytics, through planning, budgeting, forecasting, consolidation, setting strategy, and managing operations,” says Chris Caren, general manager of Office business applications with Microsoft’s Information Worker group.

Microsoft plans to ship its 2007 Office System later this year, while PerformancePoint is slated to ship by the middle of next year, Caren says. In the past, the software giant has tried to downplay the possibility of conflict with vendors—such as Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., and others—with which it also partnered.

The Push for MS BI

Recently officials have been more up front about Microsoft’s competitive aspirations. Last month, Alex Payne, a senior product manager in Microsoft’s Office business applications group, said Microsoft planned to compete more aggressively for its own SQL Server BI customers. “[In the past] if there was this hole that people perceived Microsoft [as] having, they'd say to us, 'Yeah, you don’t have this, therefore I need to go look at Business Objects or Cognos.' I don’t want them to have that conversation,” Payne said.

Caren stakes out similar ground. “When we talk to customers, we want them to think more and more about Microsoft BI … [because] our overall goal in BI is not just to make it more pervasive through easier-to-use capabilities, but [also] to have a complete product. We’re as complete as anyone else in the market.”

Wayne Eckerson, research and services director of TDWI, says Microsoft’s announcement is a Very Big Deal for the BI industry. “This is a direct strike against Cognos, Hyperion, and Business Objects, who have been trying to move up the BI stack into analytic applications, the most promising of which are performance management and financial applications,” he notes. “Microsoft is applying the classic commodity business model to BI, forcing established players to offer more complex, premium products and services. But Microsoft is following them up the stack as quickly as they can stake out new ground.”

IBM Announces DB2 “Viper”

Microsoft isn’t the only ISV heavyweight with its sights set on BI, of course. Oracle Corp. announced an ambitious BI strategy of its own earlier this year, and IBM, for its part, has pursued a middleware-centric BI strategy of its own. The DB2 9.1 release Big Blue unveiled last week didn’t contain much in the way of BI goodies—those will ship with DB2 9.1 Data Warehouse Edition later on this year—but IBM officials did tout a number of improvements designed to give DB2 9.1 an edge vis-à-vis its RDBMS rivals.

For example, there is DB2 9.1’s native support for XML, which IBM says outclasses the XML capabilities both Microsoft and Oracle deliver in their own flagship RDBMSs. Big Blue’s claim to XML supremacy might hinge more on semantics (specifically, the meaning of the term “XML datatype”) than on any explicit performance or implementation advantage. After all, both Microsoft and Oracle claim to deliver XML-ready RDBMSs, and Microsoft—to cite just one example—made much of the move to native XML in SQL Server 2005.

According to Bernie Spang, director of data server marketing with IBM’s Information Management group, both SQL Server 2005 and Oracle 10g store XML information in the form of non-native XML datatypes in relational tables and columns. This is a functional, but less elegant and efficient, implementation than IBM’s own approach in DB2 9. “In the same sense that they say that, DB2 has also [in the past] supported XML as a datatype stored in the relational data model, so no argument that they store XML data. The difference is [DB2] version 9.1 stores the XML data in its pure XML structure, so a hierarchical structure that can be indexed and searched or queried [without having to be translated]. That results in a significant performance improvement.”

Spang says the other RDBMS vendors use techniques such as XML “shredding” (breaking up XML information and turning it into rows in relational tables) or as Binary Large Objects (BLOB) or Character Large Objects (CLOB), in which XML information is essentially dumped en masse into relational tables.

“The problem with that is that if you want to gain any insight, you have to pull the whole CLOB out and then you and your application code have to decompose it, or you have to have some intermediate layer to parse it and do the query,” he argues. “So DB2 9 implements management of both [relational and XML] data structures through a single data server. As an application developer, you can write a query intermixing SQL, XPath, or the new XQuery language, and DB2 does the work for you to query both, any and all data sets in the database, whether it’s the relational structure or the [XML] data structure.”

Not everyone believes IBM’s XML changes are remarkable. Michael Rys, program manager for Microsoft’s SQL Server Engine Team, has consistently downplayed IBM’s claims, particularly on his Weblog.

“Both DB2 and SQL Server (and others) expose or will expose at the logical level an XML datatype that provides XML fidelity plus query and update functionality. Thus all of them provide ‘native’ XML capabilities (without abusing the language),” Rys wrote last year. “IBM's physical design is irrelevant. Whether you store it as a string, store it in some internal binary format making use of existing storage facilities provided by the relational database system or design a complete new storage engine does not matter.” As for the performance advantages of IBM’s “native” XML data server, Rys says the internal format in which XML is represented in SQL Server 2005 is easier to traverse than the original XML, which helps accelerate performance—especially vis-à-vis the practice of parsing raw XML.

Compression and Automation, Too

IBM’s DB2 9 improvements don’t stop with native XML support, of course. Officials last week also announced significantly improved compression capabilities, which—in some cases—can help reduce storage requirements by up to 80 percent. “[This is] breakthrough data compression, with a significantly greater compression ratio [than competitive offerings] without having to pay a performance penalty,” Spang notes. “We took what we have from the hardware data compression caps we’ve built into the zSeries and delivered them as software [compression] in DB2 9. The result is the total volume of 1’s and 0’s that needs to be moved around is dramatically reduced, which helps reduce storage and management costs.”

Elsewhere, DB2 9 includes improved autonomic features, such as on-the-fly self-tuning and memory optimization capabilities, along with enhanced security capabilities (such as label-based access control) and a streamlined installation and configuration experience.

Spang says DB2 9 for the mainframe (Universal Database has officially been dropped from the DB2 branding, so both the mainframe and Windows/Linux/Unix version of the database have the same product name) is still on track to ship later this year or early next year. The odd database out is the integrated version of DB2 that ships with the iSeries. At this point, Spang says, IBM isn’t yet saying when the Viper feature set will show up in that version: “[DB2 for iSeries] is on a slightly different cycle because it is part of the OS, so we are not announcing the Viper release just yet. We are all working as a virtual single DB2 team, but we still have these different [release] cycles.”

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