Will the real NT database leader please stand up?

Statistics about benchmarks and performance can lie, but no more than statistics about market share. In recent press announcements, International Data Corp. (IDC) declared Oracle the number-one database vendor—even in the Windows NT market, where IDC simultaneously claims that Microsoft's market share declined by 50 percent.

Does this news sound strange to you? I have little doubt that Oracle is the leader, overall, in the database market. But I certainly have doubts about Oracle's prowess in the NT database market. IDC's numbers state that Oracle's share of the NT database market is 40 percent and SQL Server's share is 29 percent. At face value, these numbers imply that Oracle not only is the most prevalent NT database, but also is displacing SQL Server.

The first and most obvious problem with IDC's methodology is that IDC reports market share based on revenue rather than units. IDC defines market share by how much money the vendor makes, not by how many databases the vendor sells or even by how many client systems use the database. By using this criterion, IDC isn't identifying the real NT database leader. It's identifying the company that has the most expensive database. A recent Gartner Group study confirms that Oracle is anywhere from 2.9 to 12.5 times more expensive than SQL Server.

IDC fails to mention another point: These statistics track sales ending December 1998. Because SQL Server 7.0 wasn't generally available until January 1999, the numbers reflect sales of SQL Server 6.5. And the 1998 SQL Server 6.5 sales were flat because everyone was waiting for the 7.0 release. Also, Oracle released its Oracle 8 database in 1998 and these IDC numbers reflect the sales spike caused by the new release. The SQL Server 7.0 sales spike is just beginning.

Another gotcha in IDC's revenue-based comparison is the difficulty in comparing equivalent products. The Oracle revenue numbers include Oracle Lite, Oracle's single-user desktop database. The Microsoft numbers include only SQL Server, not Microsoft Access. I wonder how IDC will pull off this comparison next year when the SQL Server engine ships as part of Microsoft Office 2000. In addition, studies such as IDC's reflect the initial acquisition product cost, but they don't reveal the subsequent database operation costs. Oracle's DBA requirements are legendary. In comparison, SQL Server 7.0 now requires less DBA work than ever before.

Just as in the old television show "To Tell the Truth" in which the panel of judges had to ask the right questions to pick the real contestant from the fake contestants, you need to ask the right questions to get to the bottom of these industry reports. In case you were wondering, I've heard that the total unit sales for SQL Server are about 4 million.