IBM's Past May Hold Clue to SAP's Future

What does SAP's acquisition of Sybase foretell? Look to IBM for one possible answer.

What does SAP's acquisition of Sybase foretell? IBM strategy in acquiring another prominent 1990s data management leader -- the former Informix Software -- might hold some answers.

SAP co-CEOs Bill McDermott and Jim Hagemann Snabe say they're primarily interested in Sybase's iAnywhere mobile computing portfolio. Trouble is, Sybase isn't just a mobile computing company. It boasts creditable relational database (Sybase ASE), columnar database (Sybase IQ), data management (Sybase ETL, Sybase Data Federation, Sybase Replication), data modeling (Sybase PowerDesigner), rapid application development (Sybase PowerBuilder), and application- or industry-specific offerings as well.

Unfortunately for Sybase, SAP has a lot of data management know-how.

Customers are, naturally, wondering which Sybase offerings will SAP keep, and which are likely to be subsumed -- in whole or as little driblets -- by SAP's BusinessObjects-branded enterprise information management (EIM) portfolio, and which will disappear altogether?

IBM's 2001 acquisition of Informix could offer a blueprint for what will happen as SAP digests Sybase. In acquiring Informix, Big Blue came face to face with some of the same issues -- including the roughly analogous problem of assimilating a DM giant that had itself acquired a number of big-name technology vendors -- a problem SAP is now facing.

"Acquired" isn't technically the correct word, because although Big Blue picked up the rights to the Informix brand and to most Informix-branded products -- to say nothing of tens of thousands of Informix customers -- it passed on Informix's (formerly Ardent Software's) data integration assets.

Informix, like Sybase, had a lot of DM irons in the fire.

In addition to its flagship databases, it supported several platform- or application-specific database variants; Informix (like Sybase) also had a checkered acquisition history. It acquired data warehouse appliance pioneer Red Brick, and it had also picked up former DM vendor Ardent Software, to say nothing of object-oriented database specialist Illustra. (Ironically enough, Ardent, which survived IBM's acquisition of Informix, rebranded itself Ascential Software. Four years later, Big Blue completed the circle, acquiring Ascential, too.)

Big Blue still supports many of the Informix assets -- including the Informix 4GL programming language (which it now dubs IBM Informix 4GL) and even Informix C-ISAM (since dubbed IBM Informix C-ISAM), which still powers the (IBM) Informix Standard Engine (SE) RDBMS. IBM officials likewise promote Informix SE as a viable DBMS for embedded applications.

However, Big Blue hasn't done much promotion of any of these products, at least not as it has with some of Big Blue's other DM-related acquisitions (such as Ascential or Cognos Inc.).

Informix's DBMS assets have fared slightly better. IBM still actively promotes both IBM Informix Dynamic Server and IBM Informix Datablades (the latter offering is based on technology Informix acquired from Illustra, and which formed the backbone of Informix Universal Server). At its most recent Information on Demand conference in Rome, for example, Big Blue even touted an Informix-related customer reference: UK-based energy consultancy Hildebrand.

It's tempting to say that Informix takes a back seat to IBM's homegrown DB2 database, but Big Bluers insist that this isn't the case.

"The story is [that] we have a portfolio of database software. It's not a one-size-fits-all market by any stretch. We have the IMS and DB2 capabilities on System z, we have … solidDB -- an in-memory database that provides a caching capability for both Informix and DB2, and we have Informix," says Bernie Spang, director of strategy and marketing for information management with IBM.

True to his word, Spang refuses to play favorites when it comes to IBM's DBMS offerings. Big Blue's philosophy is to pitch the right tool for the right job. Just as DB2 has its strong points, so, too, does Informix. "Informix has a strong and loyal channel base and partner base. The Hildebrand story is a great example of a solution provider looking to Informix for its blazing performance and rock-solid reliability," he explains. "That's really its forte. That's why the leading retailers use it in their integrated store systems, because they have it replicated out to hundreds or thousands of stores, managed with a portion of a DBA."

SAP's Move

If SAP sticks to its stated plan, Sybase products such as Replication Server, PowerDesigner, IQ (Sybase's long-lived -- and newly popular -- analytic database), and, of course, Adaptive Server Enterprise (ASE) will all survive.

To the extent that SAP conceives of some Sybase offerings -- e.g., Replication Server, PowerDesigner, or IQ -- as potentially important to its application integration or data management strategies, these products could conceivably be better off (in terms of funding, resources, and prioritization) than they were within Sybase. (The reverse concerns products such as Sybase ETL and Sybase Data Federation, which overlap with -- and in the case of Sybase ETL, are not as strong as -- SAP's own BusinessObjects DI offerings.)

Given its still sizeable customer base -- and its entrenchment in the lucrative financial sector, in particular -- SAP will continue to support and promote ASE, too. What's more, even though SAP (unlike IBM) isn't a database provider in the classic sense, it does have some DM-related pain points to address -- or did prior to its SAPPHIRE conference last month. SAP's NetWeaver Business Information Warehouse (SAP BW) is not popular with SAP users, whose reactions range from grudging acceptance to outright rejection. SAP has tried several different approaches -- including a BW-ready analytic appliance (SAP BI Accelerator) and partnerships with high-performance data warehouse vendors such as Teradata Corp. -- to help remedy BW's performance issues or feature shortcomings. ()

There was speculation that Sybase's IQ analytic database could be tapped as a replacement for BW. At SAPPHIRE, however, SAP unveiled its new Business Analytic Engine (BAE), an in-memory analytic accelerator based on homegrown technology. (BAE uses a column store borrowed from SAP BIA.)

BAE won't ship until next year, according to SAP -- and it's likely been incubating for some time. In the summer of 2009, SAP Executive Board Chairman Hasso Plattner published a white paper in which he championed the use of an in-memory, column-based store to accelerate analytics -- but it certainly does invite questions about SAP's plans for IQ.

Product Positioning

IBM's Spang isn't one to provide aid and comfort to an enemy (i.e., SAP) -- but his careful and deliberate positioning of IBM-Informix relative to IBM's other DM assets suggests one possible way forward for SAP.

"Which database is right for which job? The answer to that is that it's really no different than the criteria that you'd use for any other aspect of our portfolio. The answer always is: it depends. It's [a question of] understanding their needs, how they're integrating [the database] into the application, what kind of application it is, what are the available skills on hand. Things like that," Spang concludes.

"The only people who say it's a one-size-fits-all world and you only need one answer are the people who have one answer. We offer our clients several [answers]."

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