These are testing times for vendors of database software and development tools. The market is crowded and users are concerned about life-cycles. They are being pressed to move to NT and embrace object-oriented systems, data warehousing techniques and rapid- applications development tools. They are being told to look at the potential of the Web as the centrepiece of the data distribution system.
It is little wonder that many companies are deferring decisions to standardise on one product or to develop new applications at all.
The database market has always been hard work for vendors. It?s a massive market, but the development process is a long and expensive one, the sales cycle is relatively slow and there is plenty of competition. Add to all this the high speed at which the technology moves and you are faced with a very tough market indeed.
In spite of all this, many companies have managed to build up a healthy user base. Oracle, Sybase and Informix, Ingres (now part of Computer Associates) and Centura (formerly Gupta) have all been successful to varying degrees. Yet, with one exception, all of these companies have had difficulties in recent years.
?If you look back a few years there were four main contenders, but they were all doing the same thing,? says Richard Branch, sales director at database vendor Vmark. ?They were all flavour of the month at one time or another but, in the end, Oracle was twice as big as anyone else.?
Since most of the products do most of what is required, Oracle has often prevailed as the safe bet. Users have not been prepared to take many risks and they are still playing safe, says Nick Burrell, DB2 brand manager at IBM. ?I think you?ll see there is some convergence going on ? it?s Microsoft on the NT platform, Oracle on Unix and IBM on the mainframe. You?ll increasingly see vendors like Informix and Sybase being squeezed out.?
While the battle for the RDBMS business may be all over bar the shouting for most companies, they are finding new hope in the arrival of Java and the internet as a delivery mechanism for database applications. Many are turning to the tools business.
One example is Informix, which under its Universal Server strategy is putting a heavy emphasis on the internet and intranets and bundling desktop connectivity and configuration tools. The company has also produced a Data Director for Java.
The move towards tools is not just a way of differentiating, but of trying to tie in the user to a particular platform by claiming ?architectural ownership?.
Paul Cunningham, director of product marketing at software tools developer Select, says: ?People see tools as a way of, if not tying people into an architecture, making sure there are applications developed for it.? He cites IBM?s object request broker technology and the Oracle NCA developers program as examples of such schemes.
Many database vendors will admit that they would like people to use their tools as well as their data engines, but they can?t make it too difficult for users. ?People are aware of the danger of being locked into one particular product,? says Cunningham. ?They want to retain their independence.?
It is becoming harder for the vendors to ensnare users in this way. Technologies such as Microsoft?s Active X ? the Common Object Model (Com) and Distributed Com (DCom) ? and the Object Management Group?s Corba are beginning to gather real momentum and vendors are gradually being forced to open up their products. The database and tools markets are being prised apart.
The growing support for DCom is worrying for some vendors, including Oracle. By gaining control of the interface between the applications and the database platform, Microsoft may be in a position to dictate how easy it is in the future to move information between the database and the application. If it controls the interface, does it control the market? Com/DCom is gaining support because of NT?s growing popularity. But it does depend on NT.
Corba has been slower to mature because it is being designed by consensus, but it is more open and publicly available, even though the Com standard is now available through the Open Group.
The internet is seen as the light at the end of the tunnel for many vendors, but everyone is Java-enabling their products and jumping on to the tools and object modelling bandwagon. This is exciting technology, but good timing is key.
If dealer-developers jump too early, they may find themselves ahead of where the user want to be, warns Mark McGregor, managing director of tools vendor Popkin Software. The take-up of new technologies among users is not always as quick as the software industry would like it to be.
?With object-oriented systems, it?s probably about 15 to 20 per cent so far, mainly because the market has moved so quickly and it?s never really settled down,? McGregor says.
The reason it has never settled down is that many vendors have been struggling to seize the initiative. There are signs that the market might now start to solidify into a standard approach with the unified modelling language (UML), developed by Rational, now being taken up by the OMG.
But then there is the issue of components. Everyone is talking about them but what are they? Is a SAP module a component, or does it have to broken down into a Java Beans or an Active X applet?
No one has the answer yet. But components could hail the end of the database-centric world. If there is a standard approach to modelling, it should be possible to develop systems that do not depend on the central data structure, but on a data warehouse.
This is where Microsoft?s data warehousing alliance and Enterprise development tools programme are heading. Microsoft has signed deals with several tools vendors, including Popkin and Cognos, aimed at getting more applications up and running that can use Microsoft applications as repositories or as part of the data warehouse.
But the danger, says McGregor, is that the component modelling concept will be over-hyped and lead to more confusion among users, resellers and developers. This is where opportunities lie for the third-party community.
Users will want to protect their investments and also move to the lower-cost internet and intranet-based systems over the next few years. There are cost savings to be made and the new structure will give them more scalability.
But some vendors are finding it hard to find the right partners. David Smith, channel sales and marketing manager at Microsoft, says it is not easy to find partners capable of serious development work.
?The biggest challenge for us is not finding resellers, but finding people with the skills to install, deploy, support and manage installations,? he says.
Microsoft is turning to established developers in its search for partners. ?We are targeting the Oracle channel and trying to work out how we can skill them up and bring them on board?, says Smith.
Clearly, there are many third parties that already have the requisite skills to exploit the market for new and migratory applications and for those who can use the object and components modellers the potential is massive. According to US research firm GIGA, the market for off-the-shelf third-party component products is worth $400 million worldwide this year. And we have only just begun ? by 2001, it will be worth more than $2 billion.
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