Those who doubted Microsoft Corp would make a go of it as a database player are now eating their words, if not their hats. By Microsoft’s own reckoning, the company has shifted over two million units of its relational database SQL Server. That’s not to suggest that all two million customers are actually using the database – they could have it by default as part of Microsoft’s Back Office server suite that includes Windows NT and SMS Systems Management Server, or taken delivery of the database pre- installed on their hardware. But statistical quibbles aside, SQL Server looks set to get a list of features that will pad it out into a proper, full-blown relational database in the second half of this year.
By Susan Amos
Although the next release, version 7.0, is code-named Sphinx, there is no mystery about what it will contain. Users will get more Web features, including the ability to manage SQL Server with a browser, as well as an easier way to store HTML Hyper Text MarkUp Language forms in the database. Users will additionally be able to make use of the failover feature in Microsoft’s Windows NT clustering software, codenamed Wolfpack, and will get full row level locking. Row level locking is a feature required by a number of high-end applications, namely SAP’s software suite R/3, so that it can run optimally on a given database. However, the importance of row level locking is not just about being able to run high-end applications, it also means that you’re giving end users access to a greater part of the database – barring them only from the row that’s being used, instead of barring them from a larger chunk, like a page. But in return, the database has to do a lot of running around, tracking who’s accessing what – which can be a drag on performance. Applications that will benefit from row level locking, asserts Microsoft’s product marketing manager for SQL Server, Tom Kreyche, based out of Redmond, Washington, are OLTP online transaction processing systems such as sales order entry, where staff are hitting hard on one table in the database. The technology helps avoid such hotspots. Row level locking is already addressed by the other leading relational database players, Oracle Corp and Informix Software Inc, but not yet Sybase Inc. Ironically, Sybase’s low-end relational database, SQL Anywhere, garnered when the company acquired Powersoft Corp, which had previously bought Ontario, Canada-based Watcom, the database’s original parent, has had row level locking for some time now. As for Microsoft, in the current release, version 6.5 of SQL Server, the company has made only a token attempt at the feature. At the moment we do row locking just for inserts, explains Kreyche. In Sphinx we will have full row locking. We’ll do it for updates, deletes and reads. Given the fact that Microsoft’s database was born out of version 4.2 of Sybase’s SQL Server, it’s curious that Microsoft is plumbing row level locking in and Sybase is not. Sybase’s product marketing manager, Andy Bellinger comments, It would be difficult for them to put in row level locking. We’ve an ongoing project to study the impact of implementation. But whether we will put it in, I can’t say. The board won’t let us talk about futures. Kreyche claims row level locking has moved Microsoft’s version of the code dramatically away from Sybase’s. Another feature of version 7.0 of Microsoft’s baby will further the split – removal of the logical device. Kreyche explains the logical device is a mechanism for allocating space to the database. It’s one of the legacies of the Sybase code, from its Unix days. You have to first build a logical device, and then build the database on top. If you want to expand, it’s a lengthy process. We’re making it easier. We’re doing away with devices in the traditional Unix sense. So much, then, for Sybase’s and Microsoft’s pledge to keep the two databases compatible. For history buffs, the story starts back in the mid-80s, when IBM and Microsoft were close pals and jointly developing the OS/2 operating system. To Microsoft’s surprise, IBM decided to write a full ‘blood and guts’ SQL database by itself. The product, called OS/2 Database Manager, was to be the killer application for IBM’s version of OS/2. Microsoft responded to this oneupmanship by licensing Sybase’s nascent relational database SQL Server in 1987. It looked set to be a win-win relationship – Sybase would use Microsoft’s channel to seed the market. And then Microsoft brought out its successor to MS-DOS, Windows 3.0 in 1990. Customers flocked to upgrade from DOS to Windows and not to OS/2. By 1991 Microsoft realized OS/2 was never going to take off as an operating system, stopped developing it, and started work on Windows NT. But Microsoft continued developing SQL Server for IBM’s version of OS/2, as NT didn’t yet exist. Then, in 1992, Microsoft pulled the plug on SQL Server for OS/2 and started work at breakneck speed on a Windows NT version. Version 3.1 of NT shipped in 1993, followed by SQL Server for NT. Within a year Microsoft and Sybase found themselves chasing after the same customers, and the seven year licensing agreement fell by the wayside. And there is another change that will take Microsoft’s code down a different track to Sybase’s. Microsoft is rewriting its database’s query engine. At the end of last year, Microsoft invested in OLAP online analytical processing technology from Israeli company Panorama Software Inc, based in Tel Aviv, which it is busy cannibalizing right now. Some of the code will get woven into SQL Server, and some will be requisitioned for an add-on tool for Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet and for its Internet Explorer browser. Now, we are pretty sure that Microsoft is aiming for the number one share of the NT market, but what about the Unix database market – is Microsoft likely to come out with a Unix version in order to eat into the other relational players’ existing market share?
Kreyche answers, There are no plans to do that. I don’t see that happening. But I don’t want to say it’s something that’ll never happen. But Microsoft does intend to coax SQL Server into the high-end territory currently held by the existing Unix relational database management system vendors. To achieve this, Microsoft needs to provide reference sites of transactional systems, and not just informational systems. Once Microsoft has this, the company will be able to take on its established peers in the high-end relational space and, perhaps, even begin to topple some of the existing players. Sybase, weighed down by its financial woes, does look set to start losing its place in the top three database rankings to Microsoft, if it delivers version 7.0 as promised.
This article is taken from the January edition of Software Futures.