The business intelligence market heats up

At press time, SQL Server 7.0 was just beginning to appear in the channel, so no one can predict sales yet. What business applications will be the primary sales drivers—departmental decision support, as was the case with SQL Server 6.x? How many of the millions of Microsoft Access users will upsize? How many purchases will result from the appeal of free online analytical processing (OLAP), or relatively cheap data warehousing? How many organizations will buy SQL Server 7.0 as part of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) bundle from vendors such as SAP, Baan, PeopleSoft, or J.D. Edwards?

No one knows. After all, the ERP vendors offer their products on Oracle, IBM's DB2, and other database platforms. Customer resource management (CRM), call center, and sales force automation (SFA) represent other packaged-application, server-based suites that will probably drive SQL Server sales.

Leading business intelligence (BI) tool vendors such as Cognos, Seagate Software, and Business Objects (http://www.businessobjects.com) must wonder about SQL Server sales, too. They sell tool suites that support various end-user query, reporting, and analysis needs—at about $400 to $600 per user. (Cognos' new NovaView OLAP client has an introductory price of $199 through April 15, and Seagate's Worksheet OLAP client will reportedly always be free). But how many organizations that use SQL Server 7.0 will want to invest in traditional BI suites given the promise of imminent BI support in Microsoft Office 2000?

Despite the crowded BI market, which also includes vendors such as Brio Technology, MicroStrategy, Knosys, and Hummingbird Communications, you'll find new entrants with interesting products. Take Sonalysts, for example. Its new Fuzzy Query product uses fuzzy sets to represent the semantics of SQL queries. Whereas SQL-based queries act as filters, simply returning records that meet the filter requirements, Fuzzy Query returns the degree to which those requirements were met. Also, Portola Dimensional Systems introduced its multidimensional OLAP client, Coronado. The ability to drag dimensions one by one from a cube to a chart isn't new, but Coronado breaks new ground by adding fourth and fifth dimensions. The fourth dimension on a line graph, for example, might be represented by relative thickness. If you drop in time as the fifth dimension, your graph will move, showing the status of the x-dimension item over time.

Ovum, an independent UK-based analyst firm, recommends in its recent "Ovum Evaluates: OLAP" report that users steer a careful course between the low-cost Microsoft product and tightly focused packaged applications. As Mary Hope, Ovum senior analyst, observes, the real devil is in the detail.

"Microsoft's product has many strengths, the most obvious and seductive for users being its ease of use," says Hope. What's missing is a front-end tool and Web support. Hope says that SQL Server 7.0 is a good starting point for OLAP solutions or a useful introduction to decision support in a workgroup environment.

Gartner Group's Al Hilwa, research director for software infrastructure, agrees that SQL Server will continue to appeal primarily to workgroups, adding that Gartner is advising its clients to wait until midyear before deploying SQL Server 7.0 for production systems. Hilwa is impressed with SQL Server, but thinks that it will be limited by "how far NT will go." He wonders whether Oracle's new Oracle Business OnLine, essentially an online timesharing service, will bite into the small-business and low-end database market that Microsoft expects to continue to dominate.


Get Your MCDBA


If you think data warehousing is where the action is going to be, you might want to arm yourself with the new credential Microsoft announced at Comdex Fall/98, the Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA) certification. According to Microsoft, more than 35,000 Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs) passed the SQL Server exam as of November 1998. But the new MCDBA certification is more comprehensive and rigorous, and it requires you to pass four core exams and one elective exam. The core exams include Administering Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 (available spring 1999) and Designing and Implementing Databases with Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 (available spring 1999).

Elective exams include Internetworking with Microsoft TCP/IP on Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 (currently available) and Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Internet Information Services (currently available).You can find out more about the certification at http://www.microsoft.com/train_cert. Added incentive: Microsoft offers a one-year subscription to SQL Server Magazine to MCDBAs. For more information, go to http://www.microsoft.com/mcp/certstep/mcdbaben.htm.


Java SQL DBMSs?


First came Java Virtual Machine (JVM), then JavaOS and, eventually, the idea of a Java PC. Now Oracle, Informix, and Sybase, all key players in the database industry, are touting Java integration as the next big point of differentiation for their flagship database management systems (DBMSs).

Oracle will include an embedded JVM as part of its product strategy. Informix plans to update its Universal Data Option DBMS to support multiple embedded JVMs, and Sybase has pushed JVM integration as part of its Adaptive Server Anywhere DBMS strategy.

However, not every player is jumping on the JVM bandwagon. Notably missing from the Java database camp is IBM. An IBM spokesperson stated that it has "no plans to integrate any vendor's JVM with any current or future versions" of its DB2 database platform. Also turning a deaf ear to the Java database phenomenon is Microsoft, which did not embed a JVM into SQL Server 7.0.

Proponents of Java-integrated databases emphasize the benefits of exposing SQL functionality to the Java developer community. The proponents list application portability and greater performance as key selling points for the technology.

Despite the momentum behind integration of Java into databases, some tricky hurdles remain. For example, how do these Java database vendors reconcile their JVM versions with implementations from other vendors? Cross-vendor JVM incompatibility has long plagued the client-side Java movement. Embedding a JVM into a database, say many experts, will reintroduce the incompatibility problem for server-side Java implementations.

"Since 1996, IBM has supported Java as a language for stored procedures and user-defined functions," said Jeff Jones, program manager for data management marketing with IBM Software Solutions. "You can write your business logic in Java today. It just creates more work for application developers and systems administrators to try to reconcile the JVMs in operating systems and databases."

At least one Java database proponent recognizes the incompatibility problem. Informix, arguably the standard bearer in Java-integrated databases, has designed its ASA platform to integrate with any vendor's JVM, thus eliminating the potential for conflicts caused by incompatible virtual machines. Expect other vendors to follow suit as they seek to deliver on their Java database promises.