The inside scoops this month concern Microsoft's SQL Server support program, the growing popularity of data visualization, and SQL Server's penetration of the vertical-application market. Microsoft has a new high-end support option for customers who need high availability and the 24 X 7 support that it implies.
Unlike most of its relational database management system (RDBMS) competitors, Microsoft isn't expanding its consulting services to staff the new Microsoft Alliance program. (Microsoft's consulting services consists of about 1600 practitioners who take on a limited number of short-engagement, proof-of-concept projects but whose primary role is to provide technology transfer.) Instead, Microsoft is partnering with companies such as Compaq Computer, Data General, HP, and Unisys.
Witnessing how this support program works will be interesting. Enterprise customers are used to getting support directly from their vendors, and many customers are willing to pay a premium for high-level support. Microsoft, however, apparently views support as a cost center and is raising support prices to control or reduce demand.
Oracle and IBM, in contrast, treat support as a high-margin profit center and aggressively market their support services with varying degrees of success. I've heard few positive comments about Oracle's support (many users refer humorlessly to their "1-800-DEATHMARCH" waits on hold) and few negative comments about IBM's support for DB2.
At press time, both Unisys and Data General were offering high-availability support programs explicitly for SQL Server. Let's hope they help spread the word about SQL Server's reliability, availability, and scalability.
Expect to hear more about data visualization. Once used primarily to portray simulation data, data visualization is gaining popularity as a tool with which to analyze and display business data, despite inherent dangers of this practice. (For information about analyzing and displaying quantitative data, see Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Visual Explanations, and Envisioning Information, Graphics Press.)
Software companies are joining the data visualization bandwagon. Cognos, for example, introduced Cognos Visualizer to extend its PowerPlay and Impromptu business intelligence software. Cognos Visualizer offers advanced visualization techniques, including visual scorecarding and the ability to handle scaling problems often associated with plotting more than one item along a given dimension. An Israeli startup, Maximal Innovative Intelligence, should be shipping its data visualization software, Maximal, by the time you read this. Other players include Visual Insights (a spin-off of Lucent Technologies), Visible Decisions, and Decisionism.
At the Gartner Group's Windows NT in the Enterprise symposium in Palm Springs last May, Gartner's Al Hilwa noted that 70 to 75 percent of new application development uses packaged applications. So it's no surprise that Microsoft is actively supporting independent software vendors (ISVs) that develop vertical-market applications based on SQL Server. For example, if you purchase a retail accounting package that uses SQL Server, do you contact Microsoft or the application vendor with SQL Server questions?
In his "Great NT Database War" presentation, Hilwa gave Microsoft good marks for its effective channel strategy and loyal ISV community, but said that SQL Server is lagging in clustering and very large database (VLDB) support.
Microsoft reports that ISVs have developed more than 600 applications for SQL Server 7.0 in 30 horizontal, vertical, and specialty industries, ranging from enterprise resource planning (ERP) to retail. When Microsoft first launched SQL Server, it expected fewer than 300 applications by now.
Six hundred is an impressive figure until you compare it to Oracle's or IBM's numbers. Oracle claims to have about 60,000 applications offered by about 17,000 Oracle Alliance partners (ISVs and consultants). And Janet Perna, general manager of IBM's data management division, says more than 10,000 applications are available for DB2, including more than 1500 being developed for DB2 UDB for NT, from 6500 DB2 business partners (http://www.ibm.com/ software/ data/perna.html).