Let Informix Software Inc have its billboards: IBM has its ads. The troubled database and tools supplier is famous for its cheeky billboards on Highway 101 opposite deadly rival Oracle Corp’s Redwood City headquarters. The spot was chosen deliberately so as to cock a constant snook at Larry Ellison’s company, with themes such as a broken samurai sword to suggest Oracle, whose head is famed for his love of Japanese culture, is a warrior who needs a new blade (such as Informix’s object-relational extenders, Datablades).
By Gary Flood
Oracle in public affects to disdain the antic, but we loved the story of one internal CD-ROM which features a drive by rocket-shelling of the impish highway marker. But IBM, which employs one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, to advise it on its message making, thinks it has gone one better than both merchant database companies with its advertising campaign on the Universal Server issue. Universal Server is the name both Informix and Oracle have chosen for their next-generation object-relational database management systems, with the name suggesting that the product can easily cope with both relational row-column data and complex data types such as video and audio clips. A lot of heat and noise has been generated on the topic these past few months since Informix launched their thing in New York last December. Yet IBM claims we all got it wrong by believing Informix was first out the gate with such a hybrid product: worse, we all forgot that Big Blue had been offering multimedia extensions to its Common Server DB2 database since 1995. The first tranche covered VITA (video, image, text, audio), fingerprints, and extensions have been added since to handle time-series and spatial data. IBM had O&M run an ad last December implying that it was standing loftily above all the technology bickering over Universal Server since it had done all the work already on building a web and multimedia content enabled relational dbms.
As the agency told its client, response was good on this issue because so few people knew you were out there on the topic. Yet there has been little fuss – or ads – since from Armonk to further whatever advantage IBM thinks it has on the issue. Tom Kendra, vice president for Data Management Marketing in IBM’s Software Solutions Division based out of Somers, laughs at what he admits has been stealth marketing on Universal Database, as IBM calls its combination of the Common Server and DB2 Parallel Edition. Partly, he says, speaking to ComputerWire at this week’s DB/Expo in San Francisco, that’s down to the fact that IBM’s 1996 software marketing messages were all based first around middleware (Lotus Notes, Domino and Tivoli) and then electronic commerce. But he also says the market just isn’t ready for the stuff yet – a point he tries to prove by invoking yet another ad. He had been preparing a heavy-duty print advertising campaign based on object-relational, he claims, that placed a lot of emphasis on the ability to manipulate complex data types. But the focus groups in the US and Europe that were exposed to the material were unimpressed. People like the idea that they’ll be able to do all this, but they don’t want to do it yet. The response was, help us out more with today’s business problems, he says. Coming as that did at the same time as Informix had to admit it had over-emphasized the new technology’s benefits over the attractions of its existing product catalog, the Data Management team, headed up by Janet Perna, canned the ad and rethought. The result is a more modest affair that was hung over the entrance to the conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center – a cinema audience watching a blank movie screen, with the question being Is your database missing something? IBM says it is if its isn’t Universal Database. Architecturally the product is quite similar to Informix-Illustra, it says, with the advantage that an IBM customer ! can choose an option called fencing if he wants his complex data type transaction to execute
in memory or externally as an application (Informix’s chief technology officer Michael Stonebraker claims he was egregiously misquoted, but somehow we all got the impression he’d told us there was an element of danger in running object- relational in the database if it crashed – IBM agrees, but goes on to agree with Stonebraker that the increased performance gain is worth whatever small risk there may be).
Universal Database – currently in beta – also offers parallel processing, graphically based administration, improved TCP/IP communication, multimedia and Java and Java Database Connectivity support in a single code stream, with the advantage over Informix at the moment that it can run on more than just a couple of Unixes (UDB will run on AIX, Solaris, HP-UX, SCO, Windows NT and OS/2, with a statement of direction that the next version of DB/2 for OS/390 will be object-relational friendly to boot). IBM also showcased a few object-relational user prototype applications, but placed as much emphasis on how many partner ISVs are signing up for UDB, including InfoModelers, Inc, Sanga International Limited, Infospace, Inc, Brio technology, Inc, Vision Associates, Inc, and Formida Software Corporation. But how many end users are out there working with IBM’s version of the Universal Database? Kendra stresses that there are mainly early adopters only, but adds that he believes predictions that somewhere between 15 and 18% of the database applications built in 1997 will use such extensions makes sense. IBM, of course, continues to be a huge player in database for all its products, relational and object- relational, and Dataquest puts it number two with 26% in the $5.7bn database market all told. But as with UDB, it struggles at times to reinforce that message; perhaps that’s natural; given that it has a lot more to do (and worry about) than the merchant companies who just do database (though that’s increasingly less 100% true of Sybase Inc). IBM needs maybe to spend some more of the ad budget Kendra insists he has been given to talk about UDB, and forget the stealth marketing for a while. If that doesn’t work, it can always take a leaf out of Informix’s book and start buying some billboard space on 101.