The Power of Platinum: A Look at 20 Years of ODBC

ODBC was a revolutionary technology 20 years ago. We look at its past and present, and suggest where it's headed.

By Jesse Davis

There aren't many technologies that stick around for 20 years, but those that do are solid, secure, and stable solutions you can bet your business on. These technologies were the foundation of most of the technological advances we take for granted in our society today; ATM machines, online banking, and business analytics may have never come about without them.

ODBC -- Open Database Connectivity -- is one of these foundational technologies.

Established in 1992, ODBC is an API that standardizes the use of a database management system (DBMS) by an application by providing a layer between the application and DBMS in the form of a driver. If changes are made to the DBMS interface, only the driver needs updating, not the application code. By providing a standard set of functions for the application to use, ODBC eases development and speeds application deployment through a single interface. What makes ODBC really special is that it's database and operating system agnostic. In other words, an application can use ODBC to query data from a DBMS, regardless of the operating system or DBMS it uses.

Some drivers were meticulously developed and honed over time to be the ODBC connectivity solution for high-volume critical systems. Even today, they run the world's largest and most highly available transactional systems, financial applications, banks, trading platforms, and government agencies. Drivers of this caliber have gone through much refinement over the last 20 years, and because every anniversary has a unique gift, for this anniversary we are dubbing them ODBC platinum drivers.

What better way to celebrate 20 years of ODBC than to take a walk down memory lane -- peering into the interface's past, acknowledging its present, and glimpsing into its future?

The Past

Database theory and early prototype systems were developed in the 1970s. The two main systems (Ingres and System R) were invented between 1974 and 1977. In the '80s, RDBMS systems were commercialized and began changing the way we do business. There was consolidation in the market in the late '80s and '90s, which brought about the realization that the current way we were developing applications was flawed and we needed a standard to interface with these systems -- i.e., one API to rule them all.

The SQL Access Group (comprised of Microsoft, DataDirect, and others) began working on this problem. They created ODBC by adapting the SQL Access Group CLI in 1992. ODBC 1.0 was released in September of that year, marking the birth of standardized database access. The timing of ODBC couldn't have been better. The market was emerging just as relational database systems were being used everywhere and many new applications were being written based on this technology. Huge investments and many man-hours were spent making those business-critical systems work harder as we flew toward a new millennium.

The Present

Fast forward a decade or so and you still find ODBC at the foundation of today's latest data-driven applications and tools. For example, cutting-edge BI tools such as Tableau still utilize ODBC connectivity for their data analytics and business intelligence visualization. ODBC kept its place of prominence over the years by keeping up to date with the needs of the modern-day enterprise:

"Clean" Spec Implementation: ODBC was meant to be a standard but some drivers started adding hooks and other changes to the specification to lock users into using their drivers permanently. However, the best drivers were made to be interchangeable, so users could quickly and easily swap out an Oracle driver for a DB2 or SQL Server driver if business requirements changed.

Codeless Configuration: Platinum ODBC drivers allow features and functionality to be added, configured, or tuned for any application without changing application code, regardless of runtime or data access model. You can achieve significant performance gains, bulk data movement, application failover, and security without any code changes.

Superior Performance: Platinum ODBC is built on the wire protocol architecture that is the foundation for market-leading data throughput, delivering scalability and capacity from on-premise to cloud platforms.

Broadest Coverage: Platinum ODBC delivers the broadest coverage on all major UNIX, Linux, and Windows platform distributions across multiple hardware configurations, coupled with broad data source support spanning cloud, relational, and data warehouses.

Resource Efficiency: Platinum ODBC drivers use a minimal amount of runtime CPU and memory resources to deliver optimum performance in virtualized and cloud deployment scenarios.

The Future

Over the past 20 years there have been many attempts to displace ODBC as the data-access API of choice. All of them have failed and ODBC has remained at the top of the list thanks to its simplicity and power.

The future of ODBC is tied to the needs of the enterprise, and based on today's climate, the enterprise is demanding more security, speed, and stability. As companies begin to move data to the cloud, CTO's will have increased concerns about authentication and authorization across disparate environments. Security concerns are alleviated by using ODBC to access data in the cloud because it has the ability to secure socket layers and offers encryption for each individual database. Whether it's NASDAQ moving data to the cloud or a company trying to access Salesforce, organizations are better off accessing data through a strong driver that runs on a stable and tested interface such as ODBC. Moreover, ODBC is a good line of defense as application stacks continue to grow.

Another area where we will continue to see a major focus on security is within the government. Since the 1960s, government agencies have been routinely updating security measures. Moving forward we will see increasingly stringent security standards as the focus on preventing cyber-attacks mounts. ODBC has been routinely updated for security and remains easier and faster to update compared to new API players in the market. For 20 years, ODBC has kept the door shut and locked, so looking for a new locksmith when adaptability and speed are key probably isn't in the cards.

Jesse Davis is the director of research and development at Progress DataDirect, a division of Progress Software. You can contact the author at Jesse.Davis@progress.com